Easy playwright to get on with, Ben Jonson. His world is simple, his tastes endearing. He likes golden-hearted swindlers and unscrupulous servants who outwit their bungling masters. Volpone, the ‘sly fox’ played by Henry Goodman, is a rich Venice merchant without a family who persuades three wealthy rivals that they stand a chance of inheriting his estate. He feigns mortal illness and accepts their tributes, or bribes, from his sickbed while secretly lampooning their folly. This is hardly the most sophisticated hoax but it’s fun to watch the slick, spruce millionaires queuing up to be despoiled of their loot.
Trevor Nunn’s up-to-date version skilfully harmonises the Jacobean and the modern. The sickbed is an intensive-care unit where Volpone wilts into his pillows, a mass of diseased wrinkles, with his frail, bird-like skull lolling against the sheets. But once the coast is clear, he leaps up, whips off his wig and gown, and strides about in a shiny purple shirt like a youthful oligarch prowling a coke-den for crumpet. The transformation is hilarious. Volpone’s costumes and hair-piece by Stephen Brimson Lewis are minor miracles. Goodman also doubles as Scoto, a travelling pedlar, who dupes incautious buyers with fake medicines. He’s supported by a wily chief-of-staff, Mosca (Orion Lee, under-powered), and by a coterie of misfits including a dwarf, a eunuch and a hermaphrodite. Julian Hoult, as the emasculated Castrone, is terrific value.
All in all, it’s a rollicking night out but it’s more like circus entertainment than a dramatic investigation of the human heart. Jonson is no psychologist. He has scant interest in women, families, romance, politics or religious sentiment and he clings close to the low-life mischief-makers he loves. Perhaps Goodman overdominates this production. When he exits the stage he leaves an expectant vacancy behind him. In earlier times he’d have been one of the biggest stars of the music hall. His great skill is the capacity to bewitch an audience by doing nothing wittily.
Orson’s Shadow is a hit American play set backstage at the Royal Court in 1960. Everything we see is true. Or near enough. Kenneth Tynan asked his hero Orson Welles to direct Laurence Olivier in Rhinoceros, a fashionable trifle by Ionesco. Olivier, keen to win over the Court’s glamorous young crowd, accepted the challenge and we see the two giants of 20th-century drama square up to each other. This being an American play, Welles wins outright. He’s portrayed as a brooding, warm-hearted genius trying to placate a granny-minded Olivier who rejects Welles’s notes and fusses through the rehearsals prattling directions at himself non-stop.
This oversimplification is the only false note in a subtle and beautifully calibrated script by Austin Pendleton. All the troubled animosities between the leading characters are drawn out. Tynan admired Olivier but enjoyed insulting him and his wife in print. Olivier loathed the abuse but charmed his abuser because Tynan’s authority was an asset he couldn’t afford to lose. Welles disliked and envied Olivier. Those sentiments were reciprocated. But each needed the other to guarantee the success of an experimental play that might have failed as a solo effort. We also watch the death throes of Olivier’s relationship with Vivien Leigh as he cavorts with his new voluptuary, Joan Plowright.
I wish I could call this production a triumph but the task of putting five big celebs on stage proves too much. Huge efforts in the audition room and the theatrical archive are required to make this script work. Every detail of costume, hair, make-up, voice, accent, gait and gesture must be meticulously investigated and reproduced on stage by actors who bear a strong, or strong-ish, resemblance to their subjects. Welles is the wrong age and the wrong shape. He’s been given a silver beard making him look 70 rather than 45. And his spreading girth is suggested by a walloping great cushion stuffed up his shirt. Olivier wears a Next suit that appears blandly suburban, and although Olivier adopted a middle-management look in the 1960s, his radiant persona was undimmed. We miss the fire and magnetism, the watchful animality and the unpredictable snatches of anger and vituperation. At least Gina Bellman, as Vivien Leigh, has the charisma and looks to conjure the delicate frailties of an icon entering her twilight years. Edward Bennett doesn’t trouble to impersonate Tynan at all. And this doesn’t matter. He’s the best thing on stage, an actor of marvellous potential. Facially he might be the Queen’s long-lost fourth son with his forthright conk, his broad shapeless mouth, his thinning hair and his large, greedy teeth. But he’s a natural comedian in the Hancock mould. He has a melancholy air, hurt eyes and a crisp booming voice. In the right role he could be a star.