Volpone, childless, rich, feigns sick, despairs,
Offers his state to hopes of several heirs,
Lies languishing; his parasite receives
Presents of all, assures, deludes; then weaves
Other cross-plots, which ope’ themselves, are told.
New tricks for safety are sought; they thrive; when, bold,
Each tempts th’other again, and all are sold.
There was a lovely moment, at the end of Saturday’s rousing, rumbustious matinée (and sadly penultimate) performance of Volpone, when Henry Goodman (above) – who was even more wonderful in the title rôle than you could ever have expected – struggled to silence the rightfully fervent “seasoning of a play” applause; and, raising a red bucket, into which he dropped a coin from his own shirt pocket, announced that his fellow players (especially all the leading “thugs”!) would be positioned at the exits of the Swan Theatre similarly equipped: collecting donations on behalf of refugees in Calais, and elsewhere. What was particularly gracious – on this closing day of the season – was both his earnest appreciation of the superbly accomplished and cohesive company that has so entertained us for the last six months; and his explanation that there would be no pressure whatsoever to donate: just that we should, if we could, give as much as we saw fit. This was no empty gesture, either; but a heartfelt plea – and it was a wonderful way to leave the building: affording us all the opportunity to mix with, and thank, the individual actors (in our case, Miles Richardson: who had given a wonderful, spiralling, vulturine performance as archetypal advocate Voltore: giving “scandal” to “all worthy men of thy profession” (insert lawyer joke here)) – to appreciate them for all they have given; as well as bask in their modest, reflected brilliance…. [If I had to nominate just one person from this remarkable company for their outstanding consistency and sterling support throughout: it would be Julian Hoult – primus inter pares – authoritative and strong as ‘Officer’ in The Jew of Malta and ‘Courtier/Guard/Friar’ in Love’s Sacrifice; and “terrific value”, here, as a wonderfully gentle, sympathetic Castrone. “I claim for myself.”]
This act of urgent charity also seemed apposite for a production that included pertinent and pointed references (seamlessly interposed by Ranjit Bolt) both topographical (chancing upon Shakespeare debating whether “to buy or not to buy” – badum tish – the mock mountebank’s Oglio del Scoto in the centre of Stratford-upon-Avon) and topical (claiming that “this precious liquor” was not only responsible for those “thirty-seven plays”; but also our Queen’s record-breaking reign; and, of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s astounding, outstanding 59% winning share of the Labour leadership vote – the latter only announced a couple of hours before the curtain metaphorically rose; and, miraculously, somehow simultaneously appearing on the captions…) – and whose contemporary atmosphere (and applicability) was well to the fore (including a deliciously technological set designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis; with video by Nina Dunn; and cleverly lit by Tim Mitchell). Greed, of course – and as confirmed by Gillian Tett’s programme note, Made of Money – is very much still the order of the day: viciously promulgated not only by Cameron, Osborne, Duncan Smith and their cronies; but by allied bankers who live “in a world marked by tribalism and tunnel vision.” And yet – as Dr David Modic’s accompanying The Art of the Con confirms – “Nothing much has changed since the 16th century” (and, almost certainly, a long time before that, too…).
And yet, by the time the audience – a full house – had dispersed, those buckets looked very heavy indeed.
CORBACCIO: See, Mosca, look,
Here, I have brought a bag of bright chequins,
Will quite weigh down his plate.
MOSCA: Yea, marry, sir.
This is true physic, this your sacred medicine….
Fittingly, given Goodman’s utterly unfoxlike plea for altruism and sympathy – but shifting playwrights for a moment, if I may… – I must thank Sylvia Morris, at The Shakespeare Blog, for very recently bringing the following speech to my attention: from Sir Thomas More. This – which I cannot read without being intensely moved (and I only write here about things that move me: a beautiful sunrise; my gammy legs…) – I believe, is Shakespeare at his most habitually humane: proving that – yet again – his words also forever ring true; and are also permanently relevant, as with Ben Jonson’s.
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
…Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbour? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England, –
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.
Returning to Volpone, I must admit that I had approached the play with some trepidation: firstly, because we had to cancel our initial scheduled booking, because of my crummy health; and secondly, because, even after two readings – initially, with my eyes and fingers deeply entrenched in Robert N Watson’s inspirationally detailed notes; then, having absorbed everything I could, straight through – I struggled to see the dramatic potential in what I felt was a large cumulus of dense, obtuse, prolixious verbalizing.
After the recent ease, for me, of Marlowe and Shakespeare, I felt as if I were trying to wade through a stagnant word-ocean of torpid black treacle: making little progress, but at the cost of immense effort. Of course, there were cunning jokes, witty turns of phrase, a graspable ‘beast fable’ of a plot (predicting the downfall of capitalism?) – albeit accompanied by a subplot which seemed to have leaked in from a slightly different (albeit parallel) dimension…. But even I, knowing all too well how a drama’s text is only a list of ingredients to be conjured into a wonderful dessert of tasty, textured delights by director, actor and creatives, struggled to see any obvious redemption.
And yet, there were extremely good reviews to be had – especially amongst those popping into the RSC’s cosy Riverside Café for a post-show coffee or cup of tea: delighted and positively fizzing with feedback that consistently raved about the humour and the involving quality of the show. So what was I missing?
In some ways, reading a script (again, for me) is like reading a musical score. For instance, the lines of the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach are simple to both read and play. However, presented with a full orchestral score of, say, The St Matthew Passion – and all may not be so readily apparent; certainly not so readily performable. And, even if it is – through either familiarity, or a prodigious talent for sight-reading and interpretation (which I do not have) – a volume of more modern music (e.g. Cage, Ligeti, Stockhausen) will probably stop you in your tracks. It is only when such a work is enacted – and after much experimentation, imagination, intelligence, application, design, groupwork, interpretation, direction – that the words (or music) will ignite; come alive; transform into something both meaningful, and, hopefully, exciting, educational, enlightening; something successful and harmoniously whole. Reading the text may therefore (unless, of course, you are as deafened as I…) be about as useful as reading a 140-character description of a Rodin sculpture; or, perhaps, a similar set of instructions as to how to produce one….
Thus it was – mostly – with Trevor Nunn’s production of Ben Jonson at the RSC – especially, I have to say, the first half: during which I hardly stopped laughing! Returning after an interval of Swan-tortured limb stretching, the twin court scenes, in contrast to what had gone before, were sudden, almost pace-stopping, markedly-diffuse longueurs: especially after the previous extended, concentrated sugar-rush of action, humour, costume (and wig) changes – verging on farce; but, thankfully, saved by great acting, directing, and more of an emphasis on humanity than I had envisaged. Abruptly, the timing, the urgency, the layers of action, all collided… – producing not just a contrasting cessation of movement, but, almost, temporarily, sadly of interest. (Having said that, the play did feel a lot shorter than its scheduled three hours.)
This change, this crashing of tempo, was not helped by that confusing Sir Politic Would-be “parallel dimension” subplot – although, Steven Pacey, fresh from his imposing, authoritative Ferneze in The Jew of Malta, was almost unrecognizable (and fantastically and admirably so) as the embodiment of that all-too-distinct breed of self-opinionated, peculiarly overly-confident Englishman (and not just abroad), who Jonson captures so very well.
Sir Politic considers himself wise and learned, and wants everyone to see him that way; he speaks confidently of knowing the ways of Venetians, even though he has only lived in Venice a short while. His name gives us the central indication of his vice, that he “would be politic,” or knowledgeable, if he could; his desire to appear so at all costs makes him agree to anything anyone says as if he knew it already, before trying to add his own bit of (usually incorrect) insight to the statement. His situation is ironic (situationally) because in trying so hard to appear knowledgeable, he in fact appears gullible and stupid to anyone who meets him for even the briefest period of time….
– SparkNotes: Volpone
And, of course, the rest of the cast were also obviously relishing both the joy of performing permanently on the verge of madness, breakdown, caricature, even – and, therefore, special mention must go to the fantastic Jon Key (the small man with the wonderful big voice); Ankur Bahl (camp as Butlins; but at least twice as glam); the season’s great double act, Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly (in this case, playing deaf and glum… – although they would be perfect, I feel, as Abbott and Costello); and, finally, Annette McLaughlin (see photo, top), again unrecognizably, stunningly ‘sleb’.
As we left the theatre, though, it suddenly felt (to me) as if something – not just the dramatic season – was ending. And all too soon. An air of passing seemed encompassed in the breeze. And, at Compton Verney, the following afternoon, this was underlined by ragged red admirals and late painted ladies sucking on the last remaining colour of blown-over buddleia; swallows gathering lethargically over the lake (under looming, autumnal clouds); and common blue butterflies skitting between the fading clover as if their lives depended on it (which they probably do). All as the sun faded away – muting Dan Pearson’s William Morris Wild Flower Meadow for the final time – as if shy of its sovereignty.
And, inside the house itself, it was the last day of both accompanying, wondrous summer exhibitions – The Hart Silversmiths: A Living Tradition and The Arts & Crafts House: Then and Now – tangible celebrations of the apogee of craftsmanship and creativity….
Not to worry, though (oh, these bards, and their shifts and changes of mood…) – Henry V has just started its run… – “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…”!