Volporne goes all the way: Volporne XXX, O’Reilly

Entertainment

So, we have Jonson’s Volpone fluffed up and covered in sparkle and thrust three hundred years forward into some seedy, sleazy Soho porn pad. The plot is, happily, thinned but essentially unaltered: the heirless Volpone feigns a fatal illness and plays three potential successors, all hungry for his fickle favour and his vast fortune, off against each other. At worst, a modern setting violently hijacks a text, leaves elegant originality gagged and screaming in the back seat, then drives the entire play off an anachronistic cliff whilst winking at a dumbstruck audience. Volporne XXX is a loveable lesson in how to avoid doing any of this.

The new setting enhances old characters; each slick stereotype is so familiar to a modern audience that we recognise Jonson’s careful caricatures before they even open their mouths. The lustrous atmosphere chimes well with the gluttony and avarice of Jonson’s satire. As Simon Palfrey argued in his preshow talk, porn is the pursuit of the same sort of hollow pleasure that each character here is constantly craving. The grasping at cheap gratification that drives the play forward is given more meaning, more weight and more humour by the central gleeful gimmick.

The production itself is more than just that gimmick. The acting is reliably good and the physicality of every character so well crafted that each could be recognised by their silhouette alone. Beatrice Xu as the crafty Mosca glues the piece together with endless energy and pitch-perfect delivery. At the heart of the play, sprawled on centre stage for most of the action, Ben Cohen’s Volpone strikes a poised balance somewhere between smooth charmer and slimy pervert. The direction is, above all else, inventive and undaunted by the text. Occasionally sequences seem somewhat erratic but are always interesting and never dull. The lively enactment of Voltore’s (Megan Cullen) speech in the court scene is an especially strong comic moment; dug out of the text and made a comic set piece by impish inventiveness. Lit up like a fairground, the set gives a smooth gloss to all of the action and the technical talent behind the scenes frames funny moments as though they were show tunes. And the creative cherry on top of this trembling tower of a cake is the live band that stirs action along with music that somehow feels at home next to Jonson’s verse.

My only reservation is that all these fireworks do often drown out more nuanced comic moments. But, when the display is this bright and exciting it’s hard to hold that as a complaint for long. Although the opening act was slowed by the jarring intensity of Celia’s (Sophie Ablett) subplot, the cast all warmed to their roles as the play progressed and by the second act any concerns of occasional stiltedness could be forgotten. The unashamed fun of the entire premise carried the play forward and took the audience with it.

Ultimately: I came, I saw and I loved every single moment of it. Even the innuendo, the incessant, infectious and incontrovertibly Jonsonian innuendo. I was prepared for a gimmick laden cock tease that failed to deliver the goods. I was met with a theatrical production that went all the way: with an extraordinarily brave conviction that “classic-Jonson-but-in-the-1980s-porn-industry-with-live-music-and-a-dildo-here-and-there” was definitely a good idea, it grabbed hold of the concept, tackled it to the ground and then made it work on almost every level.

***** (5 STARS)

Volporne XXX plays at the O’Reilly theatre (Keble College) until Saturday.

PHOTOS/Tom Shore

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