Never have the sublime and the ridiculous melded with such elegance as in Ben Johnson’s masterpiece. Although in many ways the exemplar of 17th century farce, the sheer delight Johnson takes in the vice of his characters, and the equal relish with which he engineers the downfall of each, makes the play powerfully original, concerned with the darker reaches of the human soul.
The satire of this potent piece is perfectly captured in this strong production. Simon Tavener directs with admirable aplomb, keeping the action snappy. Yet he is not afriad to bathe in the comedy of the situation, allowing each character’s foibles to be revealed just as much in the laughable jockying for position as in their sinister scheming. Indeed, the energy of the comedy provides much of the play’s impressive vitality.
Embracing this energy, the set has been pared down as much as possible, so we are forced to focus on the words and actions of the characters themselves; the power of the satirical light shinning on the protagonists is strengthened by the bareness of the setting, touched up only with a handful of lush props for the old fox, Volpone himself.
And what a fox. Brian McMahon delivers a finely honed performance, sending his character hurtling from machination to machination, from delight to disgust, victory to despair. He is well matched by Maanas Jain as Mosca, his servant, by whose aid his schemes are artfully constructed, and, ultimately, utterly ruined. Jain brings real life to Mosca, both swaggering and fawning, reveling in the intricacies of the slave-master bond.
A strong performance from all the supporting cast completes the play, and an artfully constructed balance between caricature and seriousness is reached, spilling over towards caricature in the case of Tom Garner’s Corbaccio. As the action comes to a close it appears that Johnson himself was loathe to say goodbye to his creations, keeping all on stage until the end, all still caught up in the finely spun web of deceit, and the audience is equally enraptured by this fine play.