Marvellous cruelty

Danny Hammill reviews ‘Volpone or the Fox - a Comedy’ by Ben Jonson, directed by Katherine Bond (Large Door Productions, Greenwich Covered Market)

SEEING HOW the unhealthy cult of Shakespeare still pervades ‘official’ society, especially in the schoolroom and lecture hall, it is always a relief to turn to Ben Jonson, a contemporary of the Bard and without much doubt a far more human character all round.

Jonson’s Volpone is a comic masterpiece, outmatched only by his later play, The Alchemist, and was first performed in 1605. It is a savage and merciless satire on Elizabethan society and the emerging ‘proto-bourgeoisie’, who worship money - sometimes literally. Hence, at the beginning of the first act Volpone (the name, as defined in 1598, means “an old fox...slie...sneaking, lurking, wily deceiver...”) looks at his piles of gold and exults, “Hail the world’s soul and mine!”

The play, with marvellous cruelty, reveals how this new found worship of money - a consequence of the steady disintegration of feudal social relations - corrupts all of society with its corrosive individualism. This is what Marx called “the war of all against all”. The director, Katherine Bond, sets the play in Canary Wharf, 1982, Volpone’s house crammed with keyboard terminals and computer printouts. A nice touch, though it has to be said that the production did rather over-egg the pudding in places with its crude “anti-Thatcherism” and cudgel-like ‘leftist’ moralism.

The play rests upon the relationship between Volpone and “his parasite” Mosca, the cunning servant of theatrical folklore. Naturally, in the best theatrical tradition, Mosca eventually goes beyond his master in terms of Machiavellian scheme-mongering as he becomes drunk on his own ego. In this context he delivers what could be called the ‘punchline’ of the play: “Almost...all the wise world is little else in nature but parasites and sub-parasites.”

Ben Jonson’s genuinely dangerous, subversive humour is always a welcome antidote to the slightly depressing conservatism of Shakespeare. Volpone and Mosca are not entirely anti-heroes, to be viewed with simple disgust. Their exhiliratory quest for wealth - which leads Volpone to declare, “I glory more in the cunning purchase of my wealth than in the glad possession” - is a symptom of the decline of the stagnant feudal order and the rise of a new dynamic social class. For Shakespeare, quite naturally, this rise was more a source of dread, as all his plays were written with the specific intention of ingratiating himself into the Tudor court.

This is highlighted by Edward Bond, in his brilliant play, Bingo, which is just about to start a tour of Britain. Shakespeare’s valuable role in upholding the system of naked, brutal exploitation is exposed by a true-life incident, in which our gallant Bard colludes in the violent expulsion of peasants from previously communally owned lands - to build his own private property.

Jonson, too, appears as a character in Bingo, berating Shakespeare for his hypocrisy and sycophancy. Bond is warning that underneath Shakespeare’s ‘poetic beauty’, his pseudo-universality, lurks class exploitation and violence.

The vibrant, if not feverish, nature of Volpone is infectious and his on-the-edge, racy humour is worlds apart from the ‘jolly japes’ and safe farces of the Bard.

Danny Hammill