Laura Kolb (Baruch College)
Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox is often read as a condemnation of greed. The title character’s idolatrous love of his gold invokes traditional warnings against over-attachment to worldly dross. At the same time, the play’s setting in Venice, glittering center of Mediterranean trade, turns our attention to the allure not only of gleaming, material gold, but also of liquid, circulating capital. Jonson’s play is a dark love song to protean, metamorphic money, which takes on fantastic shapes and draws together myriad people. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s current production, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Volpone has been updated to comment on contemporary forms of money, greed, and transformation, as well. Volpone’s gold is still there, lavishly displayed in sleek glass cases that light up from within at the magnifico’s command: “Open the shrine, that I may see my saint!” But the world of Volpone, as Nunn has conceived it, is a distinctly 21st-century one. It’s a world of stock tickers and iPads; of well-tailored suits and crisp, hard-cornered shopping bags; of selfies and self-promotion. Volpone snorts cocaine to shake off his post-trial jitters; Mosca uses security monitors to check who’s at the door; Lady Politic Would-Be, trailed by a cameraman, is on an endless quest to create viral content. The Venetian piazza, where Volpone performs as Scoto the mountebank, has become a corporate plaza, hemmed round by soaring walls of glass and steel.
Invoking contemporary life, especially finance culture, has become the norm in recent theatrical productions of early modern “money” plays. In the lauded Theatre for a New Audience production of Merchant of Venice starring F. Murray Abraham (2007; revived in 2011), Macbooks represented Portia’s caskets, and Solerio and Solanio, young Wall Street types, traded stocks in the background to the main action. In the 2012 Timon of Athens at London’s National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale played the protagonist as a wealthy financier, and his patronage of the arts took a distinctly modern form: the first scene’s party commemorated the opening of “The Timon Room” in a well-appointed art museum. Like these shows, the RSC’s Volpone aims at more than mere relevance. The idea behind all of these productions seems to run something like this: if the cluster of early modern plays about money, merchants, trade, debt, and acquisition by Jonson, Shakespeare, and their contemporaries spoke to their own economic moment, then perhaps these plays can be mobilized to comment on ours. Timon’s debt bubble stands in for the debt crisis of 2008; the self-centered blindness of Volpone’s hopeful heirs’ is made to look like the blinkered vision of financial strivers sealed off from the messes and struggles of the wider world. The risk of this approach is twofold. First, skewering finance can come across as a little easy; this is low-hanging fruit, made into an appealing but potentially undercooked pie. Second, it’s an increasingly familiar move. When suits and smartphones are as unsurprising onstage as ruffs and hose—probably less surprising, these days—the money plays become comfortably conventional, even in their contemporary garb. If this is critique, it has become a little bit toothless; if it’s subversion, it manages to contain itself.
What saves RSC’s Volpone from sliding wholly into the new conventionality is the production’s ingenious treatment of everything besides money. Jonson’s Volpone was never, or never only, a straight-up condemnation of greed, after all. At its heart is a celebration of competing forms of creative energy: Volpone’s will to transform himself and his world into ever more exquisitely lurid, entertaining shapes and Mosca’s cold-eyed Machiavellian improvisations. Greed, in their collaborative scheme, is not an end in itself; Volpone’s declaration that “I glory/ More in the cunning purchase of my wealth / Than in the glad possession” is as sincere as it is self-delighted. This show brings the imaginative nature of their exploits to the fore.
As Volpone, Henry Goodman is endlessly compelling to watch. Bursting with mirth and vigor, he seems to be everywhere at once; even during the sickbed scenes, he conveys as sense of lively movement, his eyes darting slyly side-to-side and his voice fluctuating between sudden booms and wheezing peeps. His sickbed transformation in Act One is an absolute joy. Donning a scraggly wig and hospital gown, practicing his palsy and his cough, Goodman’s Volpone takes heady pleasure in his own metamorphosis from well-dressed, well-coifed millionaire to dying body. Each phlegmy throat rattle and hoarse cry is perfectly timed and brilliantly rehearsed. His parasite and sometime partner-in-crime, Mosca (Orion Lee), offers a strong foil. Still where Volpone is fidgety, imperturbable where Volpone vibrates with excitement, he manages to manipulate not only the bevy of heirs but also his master. Blending into the background, offering bland smiles and flattering praise, never asking to be noticed, the low-born Mosca mounts a quiet cold war against the super-rich. His transformation from lackey to mastermind, late in the play, is chilling. Discovering the opportunity to trick Volpone out of position and goods, his subservience falls away, revealing bitter hatred bred by a lifetime of exclusion and uncertainty beneath. Intriguingly, Volpone’s other servants, the delightfully eclectic team of Nano (Jon Key), Androgyno (Ankur Bahl), and Castrone (Julian Hoult), clearly side with their master. Finding him dispossessed, locked out of his own home, they offer hands to hold and looks of comfort. Volpone is a wicked man and an exploitative master, but he nevertheless embodies a principle of community and collaboration, which contrasts sharply with Mosca’s solitary, isolated will.
It is easy to side with Volpone, not only in his final showdown with Mosca, but throughout. Indeed, Goodman’s appeal in the role is ultimately where the show is at its boldest and most disturbing. For instance, when Mosca succeeds in tricking the violently jealous Corvino (the terrifying Matthew Kelly) into leaving his much-younger wife, Celia (Rhiannon Kelly, who plays the part of a Russian mail-order bride with pathos and dignity), alone with “sick” Volpone, the older man sings to her beautifully, offers her rubies and pearls and baths made of “the milk of unicorns,” all while locking the doors and, finally, cuffing her to his bed. He spins gorgeous verbal webs, at the heart of which is a vicious rapacity. Here and everywhere in the play, Jonson situates us in a state of moral ambiguity, which Nunn hones in on and amplifies: Volpone’s creativity is magnetic, and endlessly fascinating, but it serves trickery, cruelty, and violence.
This state of moral ambiguity comes to a head in the play’s double ending. Rendering a final sentence on Volpone and his associates, the judge in the Venetian court offers a warning to the audience: “Let all that see these vices thus rewarded,/ Take heart and love to study ’em! Mischiefs feed/ Like beasts, till they be fat, and then they bleed.” The play appears, in this moment, as a morality: we have been warned. But it isn’t over. Volpone himself, miraculously, reappears to deliver the epilogue. He reminds us that “the seasoning of the play is the applause,” which we, obligingly, give. So where do we stand? Who are we with? The audience applauds, and approves, and is implicated. The play itself is, as Mosca calls it, a Fox-Trap. And if it works—as it does here—we find ourselves caught in it.
Caught, in more ways than one. Leaving the theater, I picked up a program in the gift shop, through which audiences enter and exit the Swan. I was hoping for a director’s statement from Nunn or maybe an interview with some of the cast. Aside from a bare-bones plot synopsis and brief cast bios, the program had little to offer about this specific production. Instead, it contained an essay on “whether the financial world really is a playground for the rich and greedy,” and another essay on the common “Nigerian prince” internet scam. Neither fleshed out real links to Jonson’s play, though both spoke, if vaguely, to the production’s contemporary atmosphere. More relevant, really, was the beautifully designed jewelry ad on the final page. A picture of a pearl necklace in a glossy case, appealing to the wealthier theater-goer, it startlingly echoed Volpone’s coercive temptation of Celia: “See, here, a rope of pearl!” The pearls reminded me, too, that the program itself cost four pounds. I think I’ve been conned.
Categories: Theater Reviews