Intruding on the preparations for Volpone, showing at the Keble O’Reilly this week, the most noticeable thing was the sheer warmth of the rehearsal room. I am not referring to Univ’s central-heating system (although this also perhaps warrants some column-inches of praise) but rather the smiles, laughs, and creative energy which fizzled before, after, and between the scenes I was shown. The team behind this show clearly get on and the relish with which they brought Ben Jonson’s tricky farce to life before my eyes was infectious. It seems this is exactly the kind of production that cold Oxford students need in the throes of end-of-term blues.
To summarise a very complex plot, Volpone is a satire of human greed and lust. One of Jonson’s most-performed plays, it follows one conman who attempts to ensnare a handful of different characters by adopting various guises. As the details of their different schemes grow increasingly fraught, each plan begins to collapse before our eyes. It is a hectic, mad-cap farce and looks to be a whole lot of fun.
As director Sam Luker-Brown told me after the preview I saw, this sense of fun was at the centre of his artistic vision from the start. “That’s the key: fun”, he tells me. “It’s a macabre fun and its twisted and it says something” he adds (perhaps preempting the condescending judgement of Oxford students cynical about anything that wears its entertainment value so unabashedly on its sleeve) “but in a word that’s it.” And so it should be. Whilst Jonson always has points to make about the nature of city-capitalism, he does so in a way which seems to evade any definitive moral analysis. His work provides the model for a very specific authorial ambivalence and for a very potent type of dramatic humour, one which Luker-Brown and his team are certainly successful at recreating.
Indeed, one of the most exciting things about putting on a show of this sort is playing with the idea of theatricality. These are a set of characters that are constantly acting up, changing face, shapeshifting. In the scenes I had the chance to watch, for instance, lead-actress Kate Weir did just that. Weir, who has only just finished performing in another O’Reilly play, The Lieutenant of Inishmore, is already a remarkably versatile performer and watching her move up and down the promenade stage, slowly transitioning into the sickly old man Volpone pretends to be, provided an excellent opportunity for her to display the extent of these talents. As Luker-Brown describes, she has a “plastic face” capable of pulling off all sorts of dramatic or comedic tricks. To use his words, Weir has an “incredible virtuosity” and it was this faculty alone, he tells me, that led to the casting of a female Volpone. Whilst the team accept that this decision “immediately raises a lot of questions” which they have found interesting to explore, they maintain that Weir was first and foremost “the best person in the room”.
Alongside Weir is Peden, another established actor in Oxford who maintains the charisma evident in previous performances. Together he and Weir strut about in a hilarious double-act, commanding all our attention and evidently in control of fairly difficult material. They seem more than ready for show-week, far ahead of schedule by Oxford-standards.
Whilst cautious about drawing clichéd connections to current affairs, it is clear that Luker-Brown also believes in the political provocations the show might make, particularly with its updated setting of 1980s Blackpool. This he says is “show town”, full of “glitz and glamour” but also full of “melancholy”. The period, known for the birth of the free-market system that he sees reaping havoc today, automatically draws attention to “our capacity for self-deception”, the common motif of the play, and “the North”, I am reminded, “is a particularly good place to think about Thatcher”.
Luker-Brown jokes about calling it a “Brexit Volpone” but really his imagining is far more interesting than that. He uses a 17th century text to tell us about the present day but rather than setting it in the here and now transports us to the late 20th century to see where the world as we know it really started taking shape. I’m not certain that all of this will register with audiences but it’s certainly an original take.
After an hour spent with the Volpone team, I ask Luker-Brown one last question. Is there anything he would like me to include in the preview? He leans down to my laptop which I’m using to record our discussion and murmurs “Please come to this play”. Going back out into a cold, late-capitalist, winter-night I am left feeling like there are few things-on in 7th week that I’d like to do more.