Volpone (or The Fox) at The STCSA

The work of Ben Johnson (1572 – 1637) is nowhere near as well-known as that of Shakespeare, but he is nevertheless a very important English playwright. So the language, even in this fine new adaptation, is not as accessible to the 21st century ear as that of his well-known contemporary. Furthermore, there are a lot of words in this play, so it may take a few minutes to get used to the crisp and rapid fire of the dialogue before settling in to enjoy the undoubted humour and contemporary relevance of the characters, and of the theme of money and greed, and then the corruption, manipulation and skullduggery that this combination breeds.

Paul Blackwell and James Smith in Volpone. Photo by Shane Reid
Paul Blackwell and James Smith in Volpone. Photo by Shane Reid

It is remarkable how relevant and continuing this theme is through human history. Now, perhaps particularly, our society is experiencing its effects. This is brought clearly into light in this production, and by the play itself.

Perhaps because of the language and the less-than-subtle style of the humour, Director Nescha Jelk has chosen to portray it in a style that is vigorous and energetic. While this does not exactly mean overacting, it does sometimes verge on the hyper. Subtlety is not a hallmark of either the plot or this production, but this team of actors manage to carry it off with consistency.

Paul Blackwell is excellent in the title role, seemingly comatose and “dying” one minute, then animatedly and joyfully deriding his sycophantic admirers the next. James Smith as Mosca dominates the play with his obsequious, servile and even simian physicality, as befits the role of this scheming, sly, self-interested trickster.

What a joy to see South Australian octogenarian Edwin Hodgeman re-visiting this play in a delightful comic portrayal of the doddery but wily and equally un-principled Corbaccio, having introduced it to Adelaide in the title role in the inaugural Festival of Arts in 1960.

[pull_left]James Smith as Mosca dominates the play with his obsequious, servile and even simian physicality[/pull_left]

Other fine performances come from Patrick Graham as Corvino, evilly prepared to cuckold himself for the sake of inheriting and Elizabeth May is pristine as the virtuous Celia. Matt Crook plays Bonario. Geoff Revell revels in the role of the other vulture, Voltore; while Caroline Mignone is a would-be lady Would-Be – a difficult role to make convincing.

The undoubted highlight of the adaptations of the 17th century English script to 2015 Australia by this company is the inspired arrival of the Judge (Carmel Johnson). You should check this out for yourself – it brought the house down.

Sturdy and effective sets and design by Johnathon Oxlade bridge the ages nicely: Venice then was much as Venice now. So the modern medical equipment, costumes and lighting effects (Geoff Cobham) worked together with the sound, and the gentle music of Will Spartalis to bind the plot and the plotting to the present very effectively.

The modern relevance could not be better summed up than by Volpone’s own reflections that the rich see “not poverty but baseness”, yet “what a rare punishment is greed unto itself!” So it’s all OK in the end – good triumphs eventually over skullduggery and evil self-interest.

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