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Volpone - National Theatre, Olivier 1977

'Presented as it were with bankrupt's lavishness at the National Theatre, Volpone is a magnificent spectacle. One of the most brilliantly theatrical of all plays, it is in a sense a gigantic satire on acting itself, on pretending to be the thing one is not. In it Gold is numinous and crooks, tarts, fools, perverts and grotesques abound and are at a premium - a play with relevance to our time. It exposes human cupidity with mediaeval sternness and the power of "riches" with Marxist passion. Its great poetry is absolutely at one with its analytical clarity and unflinching moral insight.

Yet Volpone still has something of the "ambivalence" that Blake saw in Milton. Volpone is a trickster, but he tricks the tricksters of society - the lawyer, the merchant. His cozenage brings to capitalism an exquisite last twist of the knife: his is all the fire, the energy, the restless invention. We are tempted to admire him unreservedly. It should not really go beyond that, but this production put its thumb in the scales by making the "good" characters, Bonario and Celia (Warren Clarke and Morag Hood), unable to offer their moral absolutism with altogether straight faces.'

Edward Neill, 'The Midas touch', The Times Educational Supplement, 20 May 1977

'Peter Hall's production of Volpone is no symbolic menagerie, no routine animation of the beastly meanings behind the names of the characters, but a fleshing-out of the artifice, a humanising of the fable. The passions, in keeping with the taming of the allegory, are brought down to life-size from the grand caricatures they sometimes appear. There are gains, most particularly a mainly magnificent performance from Paul Scofield, and losses, the birds of prey - advocate, merchant and old gentlemen - are merely human, venal and ambitious, and not the predators hovering over the death-feigning fox, Volpone, that they could be.

The spirit of the animal halves of the characters is not entirely lost, however, Scofield's red-clad Volpone has all the animal grace of his creature, and the devices he uses to delude - the rheumy eyes caused by drops, the spectacular contrast of his healthy voice and the enfeebled croak when he pretends to be dying - are fox-worthy fabrications performed with relish. His servant Mosca, the fly, dressed in black, darts with ceaseless malevolent energy, aiding Volpone's strategies and arranging his own usurpation of Volpone's wealth and position. Ben Kingsley, though he lacks the eccentric flight of a Mosca possessed, is an excellent opposite of the strategic fox, a parasite surviving by the speed of his movement.

Ned Chaillet, 'Volpone', Plays and Players June 1977, 22-3

'In the title role Paul Scofield stretches himself wonderfully in one of the biggest performances of his career. He takes as his cue the description of Volpone as "a Magnifico", relegating the vulpine qualities to the second place. His vocal range is truly astonishing, encompassing a senile treble on his supposed death-bed, the mountebank's harangue, and a most beautiful and beguiling song during his wooing of the merchant's wife, Celia [...]. This scene is the highlight of Mr. Scofield's tour de force. [...]

John Bury has designed a semi-circle of brightly coloured doors which are manipulated ingeniously, and dazzlingly glittering treasures, and Deirdre Clancy has costumed the human zoo with a judicious blend of period garb and the appropriate feathers, furs, and feelers, plus the Callot-like masks.'

Frank Marcus, 'Volpone gets the National really going', Sunday Telegraph, 1 May 1977

'Volpone is not only the most avaricious man who ever walked across a stage; he is also the most cynical. He has an infallible divining rod for everyone's weakness - and most especially his own.

Yet Volpone is not only evil but endlessly beguiling, and in this magnificent production at Britain's National Theatre he is also unfailingly amusing. As played by Paul Scofield, he is the grandfather of all con men. [...] Mosca, the Fox's Fly, is the oily instrument of his misdeeds. As played by Ben Kingsley, he is curiously modern, the unctuous image of the Madison Avenue p.r. man.'

Gerald Clarke, 'Rare fox', Time, October 1977

'Mosca is a neat, trim figure, nimble and sexless, whose sharp pale face cleaves the air purposefully, and breaks, very occasionally, into wolfish smiles. But where is Jonson's glittering, self-admiring rascal who loves the game? There's something joyful, almost sensuous about the way Mosca fingers life and people; Kingsley plays him like a puritan whose fastidious dislike of grasping humanity includes himself as well. The performance is too clever by half: it presents the actor's opinion of Mosca, not Mosca himself.

The acting has the harmonised precision of a first-rate orchestra. Isn't that what a National Theatre is really all about? There's isn't a forced note or a false gesture among the supporting cast who include Elizabeth Sprigg's Lady Wouldbe, like a shrill, powdered battleship, and David Rappaport's Dwarf, Nano, looking rather like a compressed Jeremy Thorpe after an unsuccessful election speech. The principal predators are given merciless distinction by Paul Rogers (all beady-eyed bluster), Michael Medwin (a spiky spluttering fusspot) and Hugh Paddick who sketches an appalling piece of alert decrepitude.

John Gielgud plays Sir Politick with an impeccable blend of passionate self-absorption and dotty superiority, his hands signalling plummy distaste and alarmed indignation: an unforgettable portrait of one of those elderly upper-class Englishmen who can address you at length without apparently speaking to you at all. It is one of the glories of this company that this great actor remains a member of it, revealing still fresh facets of his odd, sophisticated and beguiling talent.'

John Peter, 'The return of Jonson', Spectator, 7 May 1977

'Elizabeth Spriggs plays [Politick's] wife, her face clownishly powdered and adorned with rouge on each cheek and sunburn on her nose, her voice high and harsh as it screeches out its English Provincial clichés. Among the smaller parts there are good performances by Morag Hood as Celia , the girl Volpone would have raped, whose plea for mercy in the court (an echo of Portia?) gets short shrift, and Warren Clarke and Ian Charleson as the two young men Bonario and Peregrine.'

B. A. Young, 'Volpone', Financial Times, 27 April 1977

 

 

 

Reviews:

John Barber, The Daily Telegraph, 27 April 1977

Michael Billington, The Guardian, 27 April 1977

Irving Wardle, The Times, 27 April 1977

Robert Cushman, The Observer, 1 May 1977

Bernard Levin, The Sunday Times, 1 May 1977

Ned Chaillet, Plays and Players, June 1977, 22-3

RORD, 20 (1977), 66-7