Arts: In Shakespeare's shadow

It's time to stop using Shakespeare as a stick to beat Ben Jonson.The RSC open a new production next week of his masterly comedy Volpone and Paul Taylor asks why critics consistently get him wrong
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The Independent Culture
Those of us who believe that Ben Jonson's Volpone is the greatest non-Shakespearean, non-romantic comedy in the language have the chance to put that perception to the test once again when Lindsay Posner's new RSC production opens at Stratford next week. Even the bare central idea of this Jacobean classic brings an appreciative smile to the lips: a Venetian magnifico, assisted by his clever parasite, pretends to be mortally ill as part of a scam to ensure a stream of visits from greedy legacy-hunters, who, laden with glittering bribes, fall over each other in the hope of being made his heir.

The extent to which this masterpiece is so much more than that bare idea continues to be underestimated both in the theatre and by critics. It's par for the course, perhaps, that a newspaper hack, responding to Matthew Warchus's recent National Theatre staging, should pontificate in serene error that one must "always beware of a play that sets up its central joke (in this case that Volpone will do anything, go anywhere, sell anyone for treasure) early and then sticks to it". It is more disconcerting when a similar insensitivity is displayed by a big-shot hack of academe.

Strenuously hyped but rather less than epoch-making, Harold Bloom's new book, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, obstinately indulges in the bankrupt game of using the Bard as a stick for beating Jonson. That practice looks particularly silly in view of the fact that with Laurence Boswell's ingenious Notting Hill Carnival update of Bartholomew Fair running at the Young Vic, the RSC is now championing Ben Jonson in both wings of its operation. Bloom slightingly refers to the latter's characters as "satiric ideograms", concept-bearing wind-up toys, clockwork obsessions. Volpone and his parasite, Mosca, may, like the legacy hunters, have names that associate them with a bestiary rather than with human society ("fox" ,"fly" etc), but the brilliance of the play - quite apart from the hilarity of the situations Jonson engineers - lies in the intricately layered kinky psychology of the relationship between hero and sidekick; it also lies in the way the comedy homes in on the scam when it has already been running for three years, creating boredoms and tensions in the trickster's household that the wily parasite can exploit for his own ends.

In his imaginative interest in the grotesque and in driven cupidity, Jonson has strong affinities with a strand of 19th-century Russian drama. Alexander Ostrovsky's famously banned A Family Affair also features a case where voracious egotism overreaches itself and where an employee- worm turns. Its plot charts how a clerk harnesses his master's greed to his own advantage. By helping him feign bankruptcy so as to defraud creditors, the clerk manages to swindle the boss of all his tangible assets. Actually, though, it is the differences between Jonson's and Ostrovsky's worlds that prove revealing.

Unlike the bourgeois personnel in the Russian play, Volpone has no need of extra money: he is rolling in wealth. It's for the intellectual kick that he indulges in his arduous con-game, which makes him both better and worse than his tunnel-visioned dupes. Besides, in the Ostrovsky, there is a normative social structure. In the Jonson, the scaffolding of Venetian law and government is all askew - manned, to a man, by corrupt officers, all with an eye on the main chance. The two virtuous characters are righteously simple-minded and self-deceived.

Harold Bloom has apparently neglected to read the finest postwar Jonson scholars - Anne Barton, John Creaser and Ian Donaldson - and so is dead to those fascinating oscillations in the dramatist between an impulse to classical severity and a temperamental love of the unruly and grotesque. Lindsay Posner's distinguished CV bristles with more productions of new plays than of classical revivals. He was, for example, the first British director to stage Ariel Dorfman's chilling probe into the post-totalitarian psyche, Death and the Maiden, and he is a keen champion of the German repertoire, ancient and modern. Volpone marks his debut with the RSC and he clearly brings to the preparation both a fresh eye and an appetite for historical research. Ask him about a character like Lady Would-Be, the English tourist abroad with her absurd pretensions to learning and her fatal tendency to accuse the wrong people of being courtesans, and Posner treats you to a learned low-down on the literacy cultivation of the Venetian prostitute in this period. They were, apparently, highly erudite creatures, since one of the expected stages of seduction was the entertainment of the client with discussion of literature and music - rather as if the denizens of today's Shepherd Market were to beguile customers with bright apercus about The Satanic Verses or the latest Andrew Lloyd-Webber before getting down to business.

Contemporary parallels crop up in Posner's talk, too. Most directors and critics see it as just an irksome penalty of Volpone's scam that he has to spend so much time stuck in bed being spuriously slavered over by contemptible types and regard his growing boredom with this stifling routine as the beginning of the end. Posner, invoking such modern recluses as John Paul Getty and Michael Jackson, views it the other way round. This production will imply that, at some deep level, the con game is Volpone's elaborate rationalisation of the terror of going out. Posner points to the cunning with which Mosca dangles the prospect of defiling the virtuous Celia - a tactical piece of temptation which lures his master from the stagnant safety of his blasphemous bedroom and into the first panicky realisation that neither he nor his scam is immortal.

There have been incisive recent stagings of the piece. But, invariably, something has either gone missing (as when Nicholas Hytner excised the Would-Bes from his coruscating Almeida production) or been intrusively added (as when Matthew Warchus at the National tacked on a prologue which, affecting to admit us to the hero's nightmares, showed him being pursued through a swirl of connected rooms by predatory black-caped legacy hunters.

I suggested to Posner that this Jacobean prequel had the effect of pre- empting the play, establishing in one fell swoop that insecurity in the hero which Jonson lets seep out much more subtly. He agreed and made the further point that this febrile dumbshow implied that Volpone has a conscience which this director begs leave to doubt. So what would the hero have nightmares about? Posner thinks his dream world would be full of images of his own flesh rotting. It's a terror of death, he believes, that has given Volpone his fetish for hard, spiritless, sterile gold, a glittering but illusory counterweight to a world of sleaze, shit, blood and mortality.

So, a masterpiece that brilliantly culminates in two courtroom scenes - the first a false, the second a genuine climax - still awaits a production that does it full justice. Will this be the one? With his background in new plays, which receive a standard four weeks' rehearsal at the Royal Court, Posner is luxuriating in the 10 weeks afforded for the classics at the RSC. That timespan has proved a Godsend, since early in the rehearsal process the cast was hit by chicken-pox. Now, though, they are fighting fit and raring to demonstrate that, compared with the warped psychological diseases they have to inhabit in this great comedy, mere chicken-pox is way down on the sickness scale.

RSC Stratford: 01789 295623