Monday, July 05, 2010
In the dying moments of his Volpone, Ben Jonson risks ridicule by requesting that the audience only applaud if they have enjoyed what they have just witnessed. Luckily for the cast and crew in the Greenwich Theatre for this recording of the play for Stage on Screen (who were good enough to send me a copy for review) they’re met by an appreciative audience. I’m a bit more cautious which shouldn’t reflect on the Greenwich, rather that Jonson’s satire on greed left me disenfranchised and disappointed and even more appreciative of the complexity of his King's Men colleague Shakespeare’s writing.
Jonson’s story of a repulsive aristocratic conman destabilising the lives of his equally despicable peers portrays the dark heart of humanity; from Volpone to his Iago-like dissembling servant Mosco to the Venetian gentlemen who crave his inheritance, this is a society that covets wealth above human feelings. One “VIP” is even willing to prostitute his wife Celia to Volpone in order to secure his fortune. When the central nobleman is initially brought to court, the judges are easily persuaded of his innocence by those of reputation rather than the truth, which admittedly has a certain contemporary resonance.
But I wasn’t involved. None of the characters are particularly sympathetic, which I know is a probably a reductive view of the play since they’re not supposed to be, but in general my taste is for drama in which the protagonists have dimensions and don’t quite so nakedly exist as signifiers for whatever themes the playwright is hoping to expose. Even a delicious bastard like Richard III has complex (if misguided) reasons for his reign of terror, whereas Volpone is simply a hedonistic empty vessel I was unable to connect to because Jonson refuses to allow us below the surface.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t laugh with this production, especially at the Steptoe-like chemistry between Richard Bremmer and Mark Hadfield (who played the Gravedigger in the recent RSC Hamlet), the latter bringing to the fore Mosca’s patient wait to get one over on his master. There’s also some hilarious antics of the clowns led by Conrad Westmaas, who add some bravado during the play’s darker moments. Aislin McGuckin is also worth mentioning for giving bite to the otherwise submissive Celia, making her treatment by Volpone all the more shocking.
Director Elizabeth Freestone’s blocking of the courtroom scenes is remarkable; the cast address us, with the law high at the back of the stage to offer the judgement we cannot. There are also occasion when she transports in "filmic" elements, the actors creating moments in which the action rewinds or enters slow motion. These are accentuated by OB director Chris Cowey who places cameras on the lip of the stage putting the viewer right on the front row of the audience when the various characters step into the spotlight. Cowey was formerly the producer of Top of the Pops and is very good at putting the camera in position to catch the best of the action.
I’m willing to admit that my overall reaction to the play itself might simply be because my experience of the drama in this period is skewed towards its most famous son, which is a result of a general tendency to focus on Shakespeare at the expense of his contemporaries. If the likes of Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher are increasingly being ignored in theatres, they’re even less present in the home market, which means that unless you have access to theatreland, it’s impossible to get a proper sense of their work, especially as it appears on stage. If nothing else, this Stage on Screen release is vital in demonstrating that Jacobean drama was as any other era and allowing us to decide whether we appreciate it. Or not.
Volpone is available on dvd from Stage & Screen.