Volporne XXX

Wed 21st – Sat 24th November 2012

reviews

Nick Barstow

at 23:52 on 21st Nov 2012

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With its cheekily witty promotional material – including a series of Shakespeare-inspired porn movie posters – and the proudly outrageous hot pink and animal-skin set, there was quite a sense of heady anticipation in the auditorium before Volporne opened its run at the O’Reilly. Sexual content aside, it’s rare in Oxford for a play to receive such a serious re-imagining as this (the somewhat notorious Cuppers pic’n’mix of Shakespeare musicals and pantomime tragedies notwithstanding) and so in itself the notion of such a drastic leap of interpretation is exciting. This leap is justified by the animalistic analogies present throughout Jonson’s original script, drawing comparisons between human nature and the base level traits exhibited by vultures, snakes, chameleons and asses to name but a few. It is only a small sidestep from exploring the animalistic nature of man to his sexual desires and needs, and the device genuinely does help to update the play and also draw out the humour in Jonson’s script – albeit in ways he would never have imagined.

Humour is one of this production’s great strengths, but it does take a while to warm up. During the opening sequence where the actors introduce their characters through dance, the slightly reticent physicality of the cast as a whole led me to doubt whether they were going to be able to keep up with the concept in terms of sheer flamboyance. This slight reluctance to really let go endured for much of the first act – the three avaricious competitors for Volpone’s money are introduced a-la catwalk, walking in across a neon platform illuminating ‘Volporne’, accompanied by life 80s style music, and each of their entrances seemed a little cowed by the production rather than spurred on by it. Beatrice Xu however, as the servant or ‘knave’ Mosca, was on fire from the beginning with a feisty opening introit that gave way to a character that possessed grace and guile in equal measure. Xu imbues all the actions of Mosca with a subtle physical mischievousness, even when feigning deference to her clients there’s a steely and witty undercurrent. The warming up of the humour is heavily interrupted by one of the most serious and dramatic scenes of the play happening under half an hour in when Corvino (played by Will Stanford), one of the three clients, severely and jealously berates his wife for looking at another man, beating her and forcing a chastity belt on her. Whilst the scene is reasonably well dealt with by Stanford and Sophie Ablett (playing his wife Celia) the heightened dramatic content seems hysterical so early on, and jars with the material which frames it. Instead of being a moment of powerful contrast it is simply a shocking interruption, and hinders Stanford’s character development for the rest of the play, his comic potential as a brawn-before-brains porn star somewhat spoilt.

The centre of the action, Volpone himself, spends much of the first act rolling around on his pink triangular bed in matching satin pyjamas, pretending to be on his deathbed with the purpose of drawing money from those who seek to gain in his will. Ben Cohen’s boundless energy when Volpone is able to be himself is brilliant, bounding round the set with a restless excitement. His speech, however, is somewhat hindered by this energy and a lot of the lines were simply too speedily delivered to be comprehended – and so despite providing the first act with a lot of onstage energy the material itself wasn’t able to elicit as many laughs as it deserved. Most of the comedy in this act comes from the unlikely source of Bonario, the son of an aging lothario, brought to life in a wonderfully endearing fashion by Miles Lawrence. Well dressed but awkward, sincere but naïve, when Bonario takes charge of the situation to defend Celia by daringly wielding an alarmingly shiny sex toy Miles manages to make the humour as much a part of his character as it is the waving about of a purple phallus.

By the start of the second half the entire cast had finally begun to let loose. Megan Cullen’s Voltore is at her seductive best during the court scenes, sashaying around the stage and commanding the space. The drum-rolls and spotlights as each character said their piece was perhaps a little too reminiscent of the more melodramatic parts of Chicago, but the camped up court scenes were able to cope. The rulers of court, the advocatori, are a hilarious duo and almost defy description. One audience member I passed on the way out used the phrase ‘creepy hilarious gay judges’ and that’s a good an attempt as any – Lewis Evans and Simon Devenport do an excellent job making an event of even the smallest throwaway line.

The technical aspects of the show also come into their own during this act – it is evident that a huge amount of time has been spent on the production itself, with a large number of lighting and music cues, and not one of them being amiss even on the first night. Dougie Perkins and Nathan Klein, creating the lighting and the music respectively, really lift the production values of the piece – playing an active part in the humour and drama as opposed to simply accompanying it. The newly written music in particular gives the production a real professional gloss, lively and authentically 80s, and at times shamelessly sexy.

By the end of the play it was evident that everyone – cast and audience alike – was enjoying themselves, but it is certain they would have done so even more had the first act achieved the fast-paced hilarity of the second. Although much is made in the promotional material of the darkness of Jonson’s original script, that is almost entirely lacking in this production – and it would not necessarily be any the worse for it were it not for that one scene of intimidation between Corvino and his wife in the first half which really disturbs the flow and overall aesthetic of the piece. Likewise, the parting few lines were delivered by Cohen too quickly to pick up and therefore when the lights went down and the bows began it felt very abrupt. It is certain that Volporne will mature during its run, and there are a few standout performances that really capture the essence of the piece, but despite a daring concept well carried out in terms of design, music and costume, the lack of attention to the actual story arc and delivery sometimes lets it down. It’s fun, but it isn’t quite fearless – and so never quite lives up to its own ideas.

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Thomas Stell

at 04:34 on 22nd Nov 2012

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Volpone is a Ben Jonson comedy, the story of a rich nobleman whose favourite pastime is tricking his hangers-on into thinking they will be beneficiaries in his will. It is set in the Venice of Jonson’s period, and is remarkable for the animal names and qualities of each of the characters. “Volpone” means “fox”, “Mosca”, the former’s accomplice, “fly”, “Voltore”, a lawyer, “vulture”, and so on. It is a play whose characters are reduced to the actions of their animal equivalents in pursuit of wealth and pleasure, and it has some very good illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Volporne XXX is much the same, but set in the 1980s, in the porn industry.

The transposition is a very logical one - as Simon Palfrey commented in his pre-performance talk, Jonson’s characters are chasing commodities, fortunes that seem to have no real existence, like the sort of cheap pornography the business this Volpone runs produces compared with actual sex. But more importantly than that it is a very amusing transposition and it never seems forced. There is nothing didactic about the parallel and we are allowed to involve ourselves in the play. It is enormous fun.

The show begins with a dance routine to live period music (composed by Nathan Klein), involving the whole company, with Mosca introducing us to the characters of the drama. The Seventeenth Century characters have hardly had to change at all to move to the new world of the play, and very little of Jonson’s writing has been altered. Volpone is now an ageing porn-star, running his own studio, but Voltore remains a lawyer and the old man Corbaccio and the jealous husband Corvino can be easily accommodated, they are just put into twentieth-century clothes. It all happens on a set which extends right across the wide O’Reilly Theatre, with a bar on one side, Volpone’s bed centre stage under a huge pink and yellow "x" with flashing lights, and an office on the other for the administrative end of Volpone’s business.

It is always nice to see a student production with a very clear concept behind it, and a completely worked out set and costume design. One sees, in Oxford, far too many productions of the classics that can only be described as generic. We are all familiar with Shakespearian histories where the players wear evening dress and a miserable looking throne and a few banners are all the set there is. This particular idea might have worked less well in the professional theatre, with a more serious-minded company, but it is very suitable here because of the liveliness and obvious enthusiasm of this group. The sleazy posing in the dance numbers is part of this, so is the fact that the on-stage musicians are unable not to laugh at the funniest passages, and so is all the show’s publicity. Have a look at some of their posters yourselves, I won’t spoil it by trying to describe them, though I will say their front of house gave me the only press packet I have ever received which included a condom.

Among the actors themselves there are none who give bad or even only just about alright performances. Of particular note are Beatrice Xu and Megan Cullen, who play Mosca and Voltore repectively, which are generally male roles. Cross-casting in University productions often looks like it has been done out of a shortage of men who act, but here the characters had themselves become women, with uncontrived new identities. Mosca was a secretary given to plotting, Voltore a very dominant looking, businesswoman kind of lawyer, in a tight skirt and black jacket with shoulders padded like the hunched wings of a vulture. Indeed wherever they appear, references to the animal characterisations are done very well, very subtly. Cullen has the right, severe face, and there is something very foxy about Ben Cohen’s as Volpone. Lewis Evans and Simon Devenport (judges in a court scene) put in appearances as grotesque, effeminate old-men, who got laughs out of well over half their lines. Their womanly pedantry was to thank for that, the way they stood together with linked arms and kept fiddling with the belts of their very high trousers.

Scenes are carefully worked out; there is always something happening on stage. During any given monologue Cohen will very likely be in pyjamas on his bed, showing off his crotch, and a few characters will be drinking in the bar or evesdropping. A lot of credit is therefore due to the directors, the HECK collective, who wish to remain anonymous (something I cannot understand at all: if I’d directed this I’d want everyone to know it was me). One sometimes reads of quite extraordinary productions by students in the past. Nevill Coghill’s The Tempest in Worcester College gardens, which ended with Ariel seeming to run over the lake once set free, alluded to in, among other places, Kenneth Tynan's diaries, or in America Peter Sellars’ Don Giovanni that was described as a work of “artistic vandalism”. A frequenter of student productions at first naturally believes such things impossible. It is shows like Volporne that show what this corner of the theatrical world is capable of.

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