Volpone, or The Fox is ugly. That’s not a criticism, you understand. It is a play full of ugly characters, with ugly hearts, who do ugly things to each other.
It’s a satire of human greed that is as relevant now as it was when first performed (around 1605) or when this production, which opened on Thursday at the Brockley Jack Theatre, is set (1920s). Nobody can be trusted, and you hate pretty much everyone.
Empathy is absent at first – there is no one here to root for in a cast of awful opportunistic liars. Volpone (Steve Hope-Wynne) pretends that he’s dying to encourage greedy fortune hunters to bring him absurdly large pearls and diamonds. He’s not even slightly convincing as a man on death’s door, and all the funnier for it.
Blinded by the desire to win Volpone’s favour and inherit a fortune, Voltore (Rupert Bates), Corbaccio (a hilarious Fraser Wilson), and Corvino (Martin Prest) have no idea they’re being played by Volpone and his manservant, Mosca, as they eagerly wait for the wily old fox to pop his clogs.
They’re later joined by Ava Amande’s dippy Lady Would-Be, a gold-digging good-time girl who has no idea how annoying she is.
Pip Brignall as Mosca (looking for all the world like he was born to wear eyeliner) is the star of the show. The wide, innocent, grin, and feigning attention for his master and the birds of prey that flock to him, barely hide a cunning schemer, who is actually playing both sides in the hope that he’ll be the one to inherit Volpone’s riches.
If there’s anyone to side with here it’s probably Mosca, as he takes full advantage of everyone else being rich but really rather stupid and entirely lacking in self awareness.
Is he a leech? A parasite? Or our hero, expertly playing the players as they pursue obscene riches without bothering to hide their lack of decency?
Brignall is immensely watchable, witty and entertaining. His character stands as a warning never to underestimate the intelligence of anyone, whatever their social status. Wealth doesn’t buy wits, and it certainly doesn’t get you class or manners – in Ben Jonson’s day, or now.
After enjoying a spate of snappy 70 minute performances at the Jack recently, Volpone’s 150-minute running time, late on a Thursday night, may seem daunting but the high-energy cast romp through at a pace.
The chaotic court scene – Volpone’s been caught trying to force himself on Corvino’s wide-eyed innocent wife – is a real highlight.
Deciding the case is Anna Buckland’s drunk slurring judge, lipstick smeared on teeth and face, bottle of bubbly in one hand (very Ab Fab Patsy).
Directed by Ceilia Dorland Scena Mundi’s Volpone is great fun, crammed into a snug performance space, and clearly performed by a cast enjoying themselves as much as I did. If you want a show that leaves you optimistic about the goodness of man, this isn’t it.
Volpone runs at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, in the back of one of our favourite cheap friendly London pubs (great chips), until 17 October.
Scena Mundi’s production of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean satire, Volpone, exposes the greed of man in a comedy set in the opportunistic 1920s.