BWW Review: VOLPONE Gets A Trim In A New Adaptation

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Tuesday 25th August 2015

It is "on with the motley" once again for Paul Blackwell as he takes on the role of Volpone in Ben Jonson's eponymously titled Jacobean comedy from 1605, subtitled The Fox, as updated by Emily Steel. The State Theatre Company of South Australia has picked a winner again with this production

Volpone (Italian for the Sly Fox) is the richest nobleman in Venice, but he still wants more. He wants everything. The relevance to today should be obvious but, if not, think of greedy media moguls and mining magnates and the politicians who do their bidding. Volpone has a plan, and pretends he is dying, encouraging a few other wealthy and powerful people to think that they might be named his heir, as he has no children. He pits them against one another to see what he can get from them, on the promise of his fortune after his death, which they are convinced is imminent.

Volpone, supposedly so near death that he is oblivious to all around him, is assisted by his manservant, Mosca (the Fly/Parasite), who acts as Volpone's mouthpiece, convincing each of the hopeful inheritors that they are the one who will win all, playing them off against each other. The lengths to which they will go are extreme, and Volpone and Mosca keep pushing them further.

The three prime targets are the crafty lawyer, Voltore (the Vulture), Corbaccio (the Raven), an aged and hard of hearing miser who is happy to disinherit his son, Bonario, and make Volpone his heir, in expectation that he will reciprocate, and Corvino (the Carrion Crow), a greedy merchant who is jealous of anybody who so much as looks at his beautiful wife Celia, but quickly offers her to Volpone to seal his position as his heir.

There is also Lady Would-Be (the parrot), the English lady and wife of Sir Politic-Would-Be who entreats on behalf of her husband, who does not appear. Her clumsy and obvious attempts at seducing Volpone to ensure her husband becomes the heir are rejected, and for good reason. She is appalling.

Things start to go awry a couple of times, but Mosca and Volpone manage to save the situation and pass the blame to others. There is, however, an unexpected Fly in the ointment. It only remains to be seen who wins, who loses and who gets their comeuppance. For that, you'll need tickets.

Director, Nescha Jelk's, cast is something of a 'who's who' of Adelaide favourites and Paul Blackwell is an obvious choice for the title role, with so much experience playing lead roles in early comedies. He eats these things for breakfast. Fortunately, James Smith is more than equal to the task of portraying Mosca, the two together creating a great double act. Smith gives a very physical, cartoon-like performance. With his bowed shoulders, exaggerated walk, and page's uniform, complete with pillbox hat, he is reminiscent of the flying monkeys in the musical film of The Wizard of Oz. These two alone would make a great show, with an exceptional rapport, and quick fire dialogue.

They are not alone, though, as the other characters are played by equally outstanding actors. The lawyer, Voltore, is played by Geoff Revell, complete with a black eye patch, perhaps a comment on lawyers' bills. Revell makes his lawyer a slick, fast talking, devious specimen. Snappily dressed, right down to his spats, he only needs a violin case under his arm to show us just what sort of a lawyer he is. You just know he'd send his grandmother to the hangman's noose, as long as he won the case.

Corbaccio is played by Edwin Hodgeman, who has played more roles in his career than many actors have had hot dinners. His character's three footed walking stick is no barrier to his carnal lust, and his cold pursuit of Volpone's fortune, greedily casting aside his son's claim to his own legacy, all adds to the laughs, as he is manipulated by Mosca.

Matt Crook plays Bonario, Corbaccio's son, dressed permanently ready for a game of tennis. Some of the costuming is a little inexplicable so don't bother trying to work out why. When he discover his father's actions he is naturally unhappy, and teams up with Corvino's wife, whom he saves from a fate worse than death at the hands, and other parts, of Volpone. Bonario is mostly a straight role, the hero of the piece.

The role of Corvino, the merchant, falls to Patrick Graham, presenting us with a merchant that we cannot help thinking has more than a touch of Arthur Daly about him. His mood swings, from unpleasant to furious, are rapid and often and Graham provides plenty of physicality to go with it. He is also not the brightest spark, and Mosca has to just about spell everything out for him. Graham gets some good mileage out of this.

His wife, Celia, a second straight role, the heroine, is played by Elizabeth Hay. She is the devoted wife, verbally abused by her husband and suspected of everything, having done nothing. Even when he pimps her to Volpone, she adheres to her strong morals, resisting his advances and remaining true to her marriage.

Celia and Bonario are the only two in the play for whom the audience feels sorry, as the others deserve every bad thing that they get.

As Lady Would-Be, Caroline Mignone presents a woman of few scruples and less morals, not so much seducing Volpone as throwing herself at him, almost trying to take him by force, as he did to Celia. There is a comicality to this but, with her husband deleted, along with a number of the minor characters who attend upon Volpone, one wonders if there is actually enough humour in the character to warrant retaining her.

Carmel Johnson takes on the last of the roles, the judge who sits to hear the cases brought before her by Voltore. She is behind a lectern, with rows of flags behind her a la Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, when he makes an announcement. Her immovable wig, delivery of lines, and her actions are based on the disgraced Speaker of the Australian House of Representatives, Bronwyn Bishop. These touches alone get a few good laughs from the audience, although they do slow down the court scenes a bit. Extra pace in the second half would not go astray.

Designer, Jonathon Oxlade, and lighting designer, Geoff Cobham, have combined their talent and the two level set, based on what appears to be a cloister below and a series of louvered doors above, with one drop lowered in that converts the lower section to a single long room. This versatile set becomes all of the locations, with help from the lighting. The original music for this production is by Will Spartalis.

If you need a laugh in the next couple of weeks, this could be just the thing you are looking for.

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From This Author Barry Lenny