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Volpone: a 'grotesque and wicked' comedy


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The story of Volpone is more than 400 years old, but State Theatre Company resident director Nescha Jelk believes its themes of greed and inequity are as relevant today as when it was written.

“I feel we are becoming less altruistic as a society,” she says.

“There’s this idea that we all have equal opportunity … but it has kind of become easier and easier for people to say that others get what they deserve.

“A big question the play asks is: Does money infect us? Does money make us bad people?”

Jelk describes English playwright Ben Jonson’s play as a “grotesque and wicked comedy”. She says she had the idea for a local production  after listening to Joe Hockey’s budget speech last year in which he announced a raft of welfare cuts and reiterated his warning that “the age of entitlement is over”.

Just days before, the Treasurer had been caught on camera relaxing with a cigar; the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Hockey was again under fire a few months later for saying that an increase in the fuel tax wouldn’t hurt poorer Australians because they either didn’t have cars or didn’t drive far.

“There were all these increasingly ludicrous statements being put out and I thought this was like real-life comedy,” Jelk says.

“It was almost like they were satirising themselves.”

Volpone, first performed in 1605, is a satire about a wealthy Venetian man who will pursue any scheme to increase his fortune. His greatest con sees him pretending to be on his deathbed so he can extract gifts and favours from a trio of men vying to be made his heir.

The State Theatre Company’s production, which officially opens later this week, is based on a new adaptation by Emily Steele, with Adelaide actor Paul Blackwell (Vere, When the Rain Stops Falling) in the title role.

Jelk says Steele hasn’t changed the language of the original play, but cuts have been made to Johnson’s complex script. One subplot has been removed, and some scenes showing characters planning or explaining the plot have also been cut to create more of an element of surprise and discovery.

“It trips along quite nicely for a contemporary audience,” Jelk says.

“A lot of the humour is just there in the plot and the incredulity of how these characters manage to pull off these amazing scams … my key role as director is to make sure that comes across.”


Nescha Jelk (far right) with the Volpone cast. Photo: James Hartley

Jelk grew up watching Blackwell in State Theatre Company productions and has always wanted to work with him. She says he is perfect for the role of Volpone (“the fox”).

“He [Volpone] is a wealthy, eccentric man who’s never really been in need of anything and he runs these scams on other rich men to entertain himself and pass the time, and he has a really great time doing it. He’s like a big child, in a way.

“You sympathise with him for a lot of the play because the other characters are not likeable … but there’s a particular point halfway through where he does something really despicable.”

While Jonson’s Volpone was set in Venice in the early 1600s, the State Theatre Company’s production takes place in an invented version of the city and features some contemporary references.

Volpone’s servant, Mosca, has the traits of a typical working-class Australian, says Jelk – and “there’s a bit of Bronwyn Bishop in our judge”.

“I did think about setting the play in contemporary Adelaide, but I thought the greed it was talking about was bigger than that. I wanted to point the finger at big wealth.”

The State Theatre Company of SA will be presenting Volpone (or The Fox) in the Dunstan Playhouse from August 21 until September 12, with the official opening night on August 25.



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