‘Volpone, or The Fox‘ by Ben Jonson is the latest offering from up-and-coming theatre company Scena Mundi. It tells the tale of a rich, unmarried gentleman, who sadistically tempts his fellow citizens with the prospect of becoming his heir, all for his own amusement – and to increase his own fortune where at all possible!
This early 17th century classic is transposed to 1920s Venice: the perfect backdrop for a play about the lust for wealth, given the exuberance & boom of that era. It is an age of constant fascination to me, with its carefree spirit and radical dances & fashions; seeing ideas from 300 years before translate so easily is certainly an eye-opener, and a very clever move from the company’s creative team.
I’d not heard of the play before, but was immediately struck by its parallels with Shakespeare’s ‘Timon of Athens’. Both wealthy men, but one clever (Volpone) and the other fooled by his fairweather friends (Timon). It’s interesting to note that two great contemporaries were keen to tackle similar subjects & themes (at remarkably similar times), but managed to do so in original ways.
This production is playing at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, a lovely example of London’s pub theatres. The space is big enough so as not to feel cramped, but intimate enough to make you feel you are part of the world the cast are creating. The set itself is minimal, consisting of an archway throughout, with a few extra props (mostly chairs) utilised along the way. This approach allows the words & the actors to shine.
The cast is superlative. Steve Hope-Wynne takes the lead as Volpone, with a masterful display of cunning, truly embodying the sly fox. There are impressive turns from Rupert Bates, Fraser Wilson & Martin Prest as Volpone’s would-be heirs Voltore, Corbaccio & Corvino respectively. I especially want to highlight Prest’s comedic performance, really enhancing the humour in his character’s lines.
Joshua Pugh is comically heroic as Corbaccio’s disinherited son, Bonario – there are some magnificent reaction poses in the court scene which really made me giggle. Sir Peregrine is played faultlessly by Jack Christie; his glee at tricking Sir Politic Would-Be (the marvellous Edward Fisher) is palpable. Fisher himself proves to be a master of comic acting, somehow remaining straight-faced when describing all of Would-Be’s bizarre business plans – with some fine eyebrow work along the way! And his tortoise-related exit is a sight to behold… A stark contrast to his Edward II from this summer, proving his versatility at his art.
It is a male-dominated play, but all three female cast members (Siobhan Gerrard, Ava Amanda & Anna Buckland) put in strong turns – in particular Amande as the fervent Lady Would-Be. Gerrard is fantastic as the put-upon Celia (wife to Corvino) and Buckland absolutely hilarious as the alcoholic Avocatore.
Pip Brignall is a true star. His portrayal of Volpone’s servant, Mosca, is seemingly effortless. Mosca, as the Fly or Parasite, needs to be wily and sycophantic; Brignall displays these characteristics in spades, as well as showing a real talent for comedy. The scene in which Mosca persuades Lady Would-Be to vacate Volpone’s house is a good example (“Toward the Rialto!”), amongst many, many others.
My verdict? Highly entertaining yet thought-provoking theatre, radiating energy & style. Quite simply, a must-see production.
Volpone runs at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 17 October 2015. Tickets are available online & via the box office (0333 666 3366) – £14, or £12 concessions.