A new adaptation of Volpone exposes a society where one's attitude to money holds the key to individuality. Timothy Ramsden reports
By Ben Jonson
Manchester Royal Exchange until November 27
Tel: 0161 833 9833 for tickets
Director Gregory Hersov sees Ben Jonson as the most modern of the Jacobean playwrights, "the writer who seemed to respond to the new age of the market, commerce and capitalism, their new dynamic energy and the notion of money defining you as an individual". Instead of the old ways of placing someone in terms of God, the king and the feudal system, Jonson showed the new age of gold, a glorying in appearance which Gregory Hersov relates to the modern age of spin.
Most of Jonson's comedies are London-based, but Volpone is set in Venice, which becomes "a timeless, mythic statement - a place built on water, dreaming of gold, and decadent". (Gregory Hersov opts to cut the secondary plot mainly because its English visitors distance the audience from this Fellini-esque vision of Venice.) There Volpone (the Fox) and his servant Mosca (the Fly) trick the wealthy out of their gold by feigning Volpone's near-death and offering to make them his heirs.
Gregory Hersov makes a class distinction between the conmen. "Volpone's a magnifico, the anarchistic end-product of a line, with aristocratic contempt for society, who enjoys dressing-up and the fun (of plotting)", while Mosca is "more street-level, brilliant and understands in concrete terms how the world works". Volpone plays for the fun of the game; Mosca to win. When Mosca turns against his master, Volpone does "the one thing Mosca does not anticipate: he is prepared to bring the whole thing crashing down" by revealing their scam. Gregory Hersov does not believe Mosca plans to trick his master: the servant's whole manner is brilliant improvisation, reacting differently with the three rich old men they cheat, all of whom represent the city's establishment. With advocate Voltore, Mosca is the smooth master of spin, with businessman Corvino he is more macho - the wild, coke-sniffing type - while he falls in with Corbaccio's treatment of him as a servant, enjoying tricking this most foolish of the trio.
Mosca transforms himself again with Bonario, protector of Corvino's attractive young wife Celia - object of Volpone's lust and the sole female presence here, treated "pretty brutally" in Jonson's world. He plays on the young man's class guilt, while appearing as someone trying to redeem himself. It is important the two virtuous characters are not simpletons; they are strong people in a world whose nature is further emphasised by the characters Volpone has in his house - no longer the dwarf, hermaphrodite of the original, but played by people from a different, more physical, theatre tradition to create a sense of the fantastical.