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'Volpone' entertaining and enlightening


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State Theatre Company offers a version of Ben Jonson’s 1605 play Volpone that has been refreshed in an adaptation by Emily Steel and directed by Nescha Jelk.

The beauty of the story is rather simple. Essentially, this is a moral tale of a bad nobleman meeting his fate. The pleasure of watching comes from anticipating the trickster title-character’s downfall and the manner of its eventual delivery. Getting there, as they say, is half the fun and, luckily, we have an entertaining and winding path to his come-uppance even if the destination is certain.

The title of this Jacobean work (also meaning ‘The Fox’) indicates the cunning traditionally associated with both the animal and the lead character. Most other characters are named in a similar manner, so we are left in little doubt about their nature and function in the story. Key among them are three people who hope to inherit the estate of the wealthy but childless Volpone. They are a lawyer Voltore (vulture), the miserly Corbaccio (raven), and Corvino (a merchant). Believing Volpone to be terminally ill, they begin to shower gifts on him as they jostle for first place in his will. It’s greed and devilry all round.

Volpone is played by Paul Blackwell, who seems to relish the role. The three would-be inheritors are Geoff Revel as lawyer Voltore (slick in dress and manner), Edwin Hodgman as Corbaccio (wonderful as a shuffling elderly man in a lurid tracksuit), and Patrick Graham as Corvino (volatile, aggressive and completely self-absorbed). Each is diverting.


Paul Blackwell as Volpone and James Smith as Mosca. Photo: Shane Reid

The most appealing and polished characterisation was from James Smith as Volpone’s servant Mosca (parasite). With a carefully controlled bundle of mannerisms, he is also the sleazy deviser of plots and the one to rescue such schemes when they seem imminently due to collapse. His accent may have wandered from time to time, but this was a small grievance and he was a delight to watch throughout. Smith is a great physical actor here. There is a hint of Beetlejuice about his Mosca, in the way he moves and in his willingness to place himself first while appearing to serve.

A look at the play’s program booklet reveals that the cast is peppered with graduates of Flinders University’s drama course. I would not normally mention it, but at $2 this is a must-buy.

Jonathon Oxlade’s versatile set, constructed by the company workshop team, is to be applauded in its own right. Consisting of tall arches and walkways on different levels, it works effectively as public or private space, and leaves plenty of room for action at all points of the stage. Unfortunately, the sound mix still needs work as it was sometimes unkind to the back rows, letting music and effects swallow voices from the stage, and even overpowering the final brief speech from Carmel Johnson, a judge reminiscent of Bronwyn Bishop.

The play could be seen in part as a reminder that ‘money isn’t everything’ while also pointing out the potential cost of assuming entitlement in life. The more prominent notion is that slyness and extreme selfishness make the road to one’s undoing. In that regard, State Theatre’s Volpone is more about light entertainment than enlightenment. Steel’s version compensates for some of the play’s inherent flaws and provides a night of laughs that might also prompt some serious thoughts about the material life.

State Theatre Company is presenting Volpone at the Dunstan Playhouse until September 12.



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