It has taken a long time to get Trevor Nunn back to the RSC and he has returned with a glittering morality tale about greed and lust.
Ben Jonson’s Volpone, which opened on Thursday night on the Swan stage, was written more than 400 years ago but little has changed. His abhorrence of bankers and lawyers, and the world they inhabited, is reflected in our modern day disgust of their working practices.
Also returning to Straford-upon-Avon, Henry Goodman, looks right at home as the banker with the Midas touch who gets wealthy at the expense of others.
He gives a vibrant performance, flushed with confidence, and almost succeeds in making the immoral old fox seem likeable as he plots and cons others out of their cash.
Every morning he wakes to prostrate himself at his 24-carat alter of success. Walls are bedecked with jewels, ingots, gold bars and plate; his home is a monument to his avarice. There to wait on his every whim is servant Mosca, and a coterie of freakish sycophants.
Volpone is a shyster, a man more interested in deviously accumulating wealth rather than enjoying the fruits of his dubious success.
The game is in the getting and to do that he plays by a very dirty rule book.
He persuades the vultures circling that he is dying. Donning a wig and make-up, he welcomes them to his bedside where he and his assistant, Mosca, put on an award-winning performance to get them to change their wills in Volpone’s favour in return for being named in the magnate’s will.
These greedy bankers, lawyers and businessmen will do anything to get their hands on Volpone’s wealth – including pimping out one of the wives.
In one scene a disguised Volpone holds court in public revealing himself to be a snake oil salesman out to hoodwink the public with trickery. It says it all.
But there he spots the young, beautiful, wife of the elderly businessman, Corvino, and is determined to have her.
Watching 65-year-olds Goodman and Matthew Kelly, as the husband, pawing over the very young Celia (Rhiannon Handy) makes your flesh creep, particularly when she is made a sex slave by the drooling prankster.
One hopes that by the end of this over-long comedy that justice will prevail. The legal profession comes in for its own criticism, but it’s a close call.
Orion Lee’s devious and underhand Mosca deftly takes command as the servant masterminds his own path to success. It’s a slick performance with Goodman and Lee making a slippery double act.
There are some fine support performances. Annette McLaughlin’s ambitious, publicity hungry fashion plate, who travels everywhere with her own cameraman and stylists, is a hoot as she pouts and postures while buttering up the sick old man.
Her husband, Steven Pacey’s Sir Politic Would-Be is a bit of a Tory Wet who ends up being cruelly exposed and ridiculed in the press while Miles Richardson gives a sound turn as a greedy, conniving, lawyer.
Goodman gives good drool (a bit too much), and delivers the patter of a conman with finesse, but he occasionally comes over as too nice a chap to be angry with.
Volpone’s behaviour is cruel, callous and manipulative, yet one smile from our anti-hero and you’re almost ready to forgive him.
Volpone plays in the Swan Theatre until September 12.
Trevor Nunn returns to The RSC to direct Ben Jonson’s satire of greed and lust, Volpone, starring another returner, Henry Goodman.