The RSC use the Swan Theatre primarily to show the works of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, presumably to help us see Shakespeare’s work in context. That’s a laudable aim, and one which the director of this play, Trevor Nunn, was instrumental in establishing. But from what I’ve seen there recently, what it does above all is to show that Shakespeare was completely out of context – a one-off genius whose work had as little in common with his contemporaries as Ronaldo and Messi have in common with most England footballers. Highlights of Jonjo Shelvey’s career might look impressive enough shown on their own, but would be less so back to back with those of Ronaldo.
Volpone is a cleverly enough worked play and it’s been given the full RSC treatment here, with all the verve and style that the company brings to almost all its productions. But is the underlying play really good enough to justify the treatment? It seems to have none of Shakespeare’s subtlety, none of his beautiful language, none of the complexities of character. The characters seem mostly one-dimensional caricatures acting out a story that is really just an overblown fable. As an example, I enjoyed the scenes with Peregrine and Sir Politic Would-Be, but in Shakespeare these would be the incidental characters, not advancing the plot much, but providing a comic interlude and offsetting the more deeply characterised leading roles. Here they’re the caricatures offsetting the caricatures.
Henry Goodman’s portrayal of Volpone is certainly a bravura performance, evoking memories of Bernie Madoff (is there even a physical resemblance?), with his share price running on an electronic ticker tape across the top of the stage, and an odd taste for personal freak show cabaret. The setting of the play is uncompromisingly modern, with camera entry-phones, personal assistants and selfies. It sounded as if some of the text had been updated too, since Jonson presumably knew little of the Euro and seems unlikely to have written about crop circles or how to shorten quarantine periods for Ebola, even in a roundabout way.
Volpone starts the play by worshipping his gold, and immediately casts himself in an unfavourable light. But as the play goes on, his position becomes a bit more nuanced. Are we even supposed to admire Volpone in an odd sort of way? We’re clearly not meant to feel any sympathy for his dupes (as it was difficult to feel too much sympathy for some of the major investors fooled by Madoff), and Goodman’s performance certainly draws admiration as he displays an astonishing versatility.
His transformation in a matter of seconds from a suave Madoff into a dribbling bed-ridden patient on the verge of death is phenomenal, as is the later change from dribbling patient to serenading lover, whose wooing turns suddenly menacing. His grandstanding as an Italian snake-oil salesman is a joy to behold, and his final turn as a disguised court guard is another triumph, seemingly based on Ronnie Barker’s performance as Fletcher in ‘Porridge’. Then after justice has been meted out to him and to others at the end of the play, Volpone is allowed to come back and explicitly ask for our applause – well merited by the performance, but still an odd role to give to a character who surely should deserve little sympathy. It feels as if a forger who has just duped clients into over-paying for fake Rembrandts, has come back and asked for his own artistic talent to be recognised and rewarded.
Amongst the other roles, Miles Richardson was convincing as the lawyer Voltore, and Annette McLaughlin strutted her stuff impressively as Lady Politic Would-Be, on towering heels almost as high as those worn by Ankur Bahl in his role as a hermaphrodite lackey, nurse and cabaret artist. But this was really the Henry Goodman show, with a performance that may live longer in the mind than the play itself.