Beasts in a human zoo;Reviews;Set play;Theatre

12th March 1999 at 00:00
VOLPONE. Royal Shakespeare Company. Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Director Lindsay Posner is in no doubt about the relevance of Volpone. "Ben Jonson sets his portrayal of greed and egotism in 17th century Venice, but that disturbing world is still instantly recognisable in the late 20th century."

Posner has already directed a successful production of Moli re's The Misanthrope set in today's media world, but he is wary of any obvious updating of Volpone. "any of the play's references are specific to Jonson's period, so I didn't want to go for cheap anachronisms. There will be no mobile phones!" Posner views Jonson's satire as "an unsentimental comedy. It's brutally funny, and bleak to the point of cynicism. The characters don't have consciences. They create their own world and set their own agenda - and everyone else has to abide by it."

Jonson's language is thick with bestial imagery, and he peoples the play with characters whose names and natures are straight from the animal world: fox, crow, raven, vulture. That's an obvious invitation for lifelike animal characterisation, but it is an invitation that Posner resists. Although he has sent his actors to London Zoo to study "their" animals, "they will just use a few gestures at appropriate moments without making it too obvious that a crow or vulture is coming on stage."

Posner also has the enormous advantage of two remarkable actors in the leading roles. Malcolm Storrey is Volpone; his stage presence blends menace with intelligence. Posner has advised him to think of his role with modern examples in mind: J Paul Getty, the billionaire recluse, and Michael Jackson's obsession with the grotesque.

Guy Henry plays Mosca, Volpone's parasite. He brings to the role a sardonic comic ability that has already marked him out as a rising RSC star. Posner feels Henry has "that mercurial quality and physical strikingness that enables him to play the arrogance and brutality of the role within the framework of high comedy".

Posner aims to strike a balance between the competing elements of the play. "It's an entertainment, very funny. But it presents a shocking and disturbingly misogynistic world. Jonson didn't have much trust in law or heaven, and there isn't a moral point of reference outside the play. It's about egotism gone mad."

Posner's ending will fit his view of the unsettling nature of the play. "The audience have been laughing throughout. Our ending will bring them up sharp as the rug's pulled from under their feet". Jonson would approve.

Rex Gibson: Opens March 24 Box Office 01789 295623

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