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Review: Ben Johnson's 'Volpone'

Written by ExTS Reviewer: Debs Kemp

Tangle Theatre company’s, three-man production of Ben Johnson’s ‘Volpone’ performed at the Phoenix this week, was a creative adaptation of this Jacobean comedy. It is a moral tale, first performed in 1605, of the greed of man and a warning to the audience; as none escape judgement. The play pokes fun at the worst side of human nature, men seeking to gain riches from a supposedly dying man and that man, Volpone, exploiting their greed to gain more for himself. The unlikability of the characters could be a challenge for the performers, however, Anna Coombes direction and the actors’ performances brought out the comedy and physicality of the characters, allowing the audience to enjoy and engage with them.

Tangle Theatre Company predominantly tours in the South West. It is a South West, African Caribbean touring company with a mission to reach out to communities and build bridges between cultures. Its distinct identity draws form Southern African ‘township theatre’ and Western theatre and the production of ‘Volpone’ demonstrates this fusion; with song, text and entertainingly physical performances.

Significant multi-rolling was required by the three actors, and they succeeded, on the whole, with this. It was unfortunate for the company that one of the cast members had to be replaced. Munashe Chirisa, drafted in to take on the role of Mosca, did do an excellent job, considering he was script in hand for a large part of the play, but the pace of the second half did slow at times. However, Chirisa delivered delicious facial expressions as he took control of his master, Volpone, and he had an energy that indicated that once completely off script, his would be a strong performance.

Volpone was played well by Marshall Defender Nyanhete. He was a charismatic and watchable performer; his easy playfulness and lightness on his feet portrayed the character Volpone as an appealing and convincing trickster.

Che Francis played the avaricious suitors, physically differentiating the characters, although perhaps more variety was needed vocally. Humour, movement and facial expressions kept us entertained and the audience certainly reserved the biggest laughs for Francis’ portrayals. I especially enjoyed the moment in court when Francis was writhing on the floor responding to the direction of Volpone, as well as his moment as Bonario, hidden in a suitcase popping his head out to hear the antics of Volpone.

The minimal set and lighting were especially creative. The simple structure was adorned with dressing room lighting, an outdoor heater and lanterns that brought a warmth to the stage.

Lights boxes with character names, lit up to announce each character’s arrival; this really helped the audience keep pace with the action and combined with the sound effects added humour to the piece. The set created a simple performance space with a curtain and make-shift crates and packing cases, linked to the company’s travelling theatre roots and these visual references to performance helped us make the link to the theme of deception; all the characters putting on a performance to get what they wanted.

The jazz fusion style music was used to punctuate the performance and aided the transitions with the male voices working well together. The costume too was familiar to a 21st century audience, colourful and vibrant with a mix of patterns and furs and a sense of show business and flamboyance, making us consider again the idea of performance as pretence.

It would have been good to have seen a stronger interpretation of the female character, Celia, regularly prodded with a walking stick, her entrance indicated by the heart light box - and in pink! I couldn’t help feeling that there could have been more work done on this female character to appeal to a modern-day audience.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this lively and upbeat adaptation of ‘Volpone’ and I have no doubt that this show can only improve as the new cast member steps more firmly into his role on the rest of the tour.

‘Volpone’ was performed for one night only at Exeter Phoenix but will be touring South West theatres and beyond, until the end of April 2020. Minimum Age 13+


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