August 10, 2022

The Hackney Volpone: Ben Jonson comes to East London

Life has changed greatly since Ben Jonson was penning plays back in 1606. Ruffs are less fashionable and wifi is more prevalent, but the base human nature that he chose for his subject matter is still with us.

Volpone deals with duplicitous greedmongering so it could be as fresh and relevant as the day when Jonson turned over the last page of his script, wrote The End and thought Beat that, William. A new reworking of the Jacobean classic by Nylon Projects and The Mill Co is currently being performed and allows the Is Volpone relevant today theory to be tested.

Directed by Anna Jones the play has been renamed The Hackney Volpone. The production is performed in Hackney and the cast includes local amateurs as well as professionals. The Hackney element feels crowbarred in – the play stops for a couple of songs, one where the community members shout like local market traders. Otherwise the locals change the scenery a lot, and also spend a long time sitting silently reading backstage – the layout of the production is such that we can deliberately see straight into the dressing room.

The stage used by the production is a large raised wooden square amidst the audience. For much of the show Jamel Rodriguez’s rich Volpone hams it up in bed, pretending to be sick so as to receive visits from people who hope to be his heir. With his servant Mosca’s help he collects gifts from each of them as they try to get their name onto his will. Babou Ceesay shows Mosca to be the schemer behind the schemer and proves that when you’re driven by greed you can’t trust anyone.

The script has been cut from the original to try and make it zip along more easily. It is still laboured though and has unpleasant moments when, for example, Corvino decides that to win the inheritance his wife must sleep with Volpone. Still fresh and relevant? No. This misogyny isn’t funny.

The mix of amateur and professional actors confuses the aims of the production. If it is a community venture the amateurs should be more involved. If it is professional the pauses for the amateurs don’t fit. The effect is to highlight the skills of professional actors – though the locals are very game the production loses from the untrained voices. Simon Rhodes and Amara Khan stand out as an obsessed Corvino and a hobbled Corbaccio, and amongst the community players Carol Rowley and Keon Martias-Phillip in particular add to the entertainment.

The Hackney element is soon forgotten and the production returns to focus on the plots and stratagems of the main characters. Greed is still with us and so is unpleasant behaviour in the pursuit of wealth but these machinations aren’t amusing. Jonson allows the characters no redeeming features and rather than laughter, the play invokes sadness at the horror of human nature that is being reflected back to us.

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