was a slightly younger contemporary of Shakespeare's and wrote his Volpone in c. 1605, as Shakespeare was
writing King Lear. Volpone, childless
and rich by ill-gotten gains, and his servant or 'parasite' Mosca, are plotting
a scam. The master, actually fit and well, feigns deathly illness to trick
three greedy, would-be inheritors of his money into showering him with gifts in
hopes of gaining his favour in his will.
It's a didactic, black comedy and cynical satire that compels the audience to confront human greed and cunning. The play also has the trappings of an Italianesque fable - a cunning fox (Volpone) is circled by a darting fly (Mosca), and together they gull a vulture (Voltore), a crow (Corvino) and a raven (Corbaccio). Since a fable contains a final moral, so our tricksters come to a sticky end. Jonson's weapon of choice here is the double-barrelled shotgun rather than the rifle. All his characters, save only a couple, are shown to be up to their ears in the debased value system of the age and place; they become figures of contempt and also bankrupt, both morally and financially.
Jonson set his drama in Venice, to the Jacobean mind a byword for decadence, a city of mercantile riches amassed with more avidity than scrupulousness. Director Sam Luker Brown has had the brainwave of locating his version on the Golden Mile of Blackpool in the early 1980s, perhaps around Margaret Thatcher's second term of government with its emphasis on free markets, and specifically the quick profits to be made from the frenzied privatization of its public utilities. Thus we entered to find ourselves in a seedy seafront cabaret room, with padded bar, faux-chandelier overhead, a Volpone's sign picked out in blue neon and precisely the kind of luridly-striped carpet I remember from my youth on the Palace Pier in Brighton. All spot-on observation and execution by designer Lindon Hogarth, backed up by clever sound work (inter alia seagulls and breaking waves) from Milo Saville and nicely dishevelled, often nouveau riche outfits by Lily Goldblatt and Ben Walker. The excellent 5-piece floorshow band (Milo Saville, Jonny Drake, Ellie Holton, Quentin Dercon and singer Huw Braithwaite) played us in and at intervals later, with their self-composed 80s soft-shuffle rock numbers; perfectly pitched for place and era.
The plot-heavy drama, involving a couple of plays-within-the-play, of deceit and bluster then unrolled before us. I've seen a couple of Volpones in the past and found them a mite tedious. The parade of get-rich-quick suitors for Volpone's worldly possessions has been numbing, and the efforts of the virtuous wife Celia and the brave and honourable young Bonario have seemed a bit wan set against the excesses of vice all around them. But Sam Luker Brown has shaken off the cobwebs wherever one looks, from the opening scene in dumb-show with two drunks lolling at the bar, via Volpone appearing as a school road crossing lady complete with dayglo jacket and lollipop, to the hysteria near the end of Sir Politic Would-Be writhing on the floor in the clutches of a giant plastic tortoise.
I've seen plenty of student productions where the directorial concept has shone brightly for an hour and then dwindled away. Luker Brown here sustains his concept from first to last, bursting with intelligence and imagination. I especially enjoyed the little touch of having Volpone grab Huw Braithwaite's microphone and indulge in a spot of open-mike singing to the singer's obvious displeasure.
Our two principals, Kate Weir's Volpone and Joe Peden's Mosca, produced a quality double-act. The former alternating between slumping in a rug-draped wheelchair and leaping around the stage like a grasshopper on Speed, while this Mosca veered between sly grin and belly-laugh at the naivety of their victims, stuffed with plausible amorality, his tongue flicking out, snake-like. I might, however, have just liked a touch more viciousness from him at the end when unmasked. The three legacy-hunters ("let the cherry knock against their lips") were strongly differentiated; the pin-striped Voltore (Marcus Knight-Adams) was voluble and emphatic, Corbaccio (Daisy Hayes), infinitely decrepit in dingy velvet and leopardskin dress, and grey-suited Corvino (Emma Howlett, just a little subdued, perhaps from first night inhibition).
Rory Grant's Sir Politic Would-Be, star of the related sub-plot, would-be smart in his faded naval uniform, hobbled and blustered to great effect, deftly backed up by Olivia White as his vain wife. And Rory Grant and Finlay Stroud as the two most flat-capped, whippet-fancying, booze-soaked judges this side of the Blackpool Tower all but brought the house down at the end.
Seeing Hand Productions have taken this play down from the library shelf marked "dusty classics" and breathed such vital life into it that Wednesday's audience left feeling jolted as by a surge of electricity. We all knew we'd seen something special. No one interested in collaborative drama and possessed of even a passing appreciation of skilled direction can possibly afford to miss this box of infinite delights.