THEATRE / The glitter of acid-etched gilt: Paul Taylor on Bill Alexander's production of Volpone in Birmingham

PLAYS SET in or around Venice seem to be much in vogue. Last week brought us The Merchant of Venice and The Venetian Twins at Stratford; now it's back to La Serenissima in Bill Alexander's striking production of Volpone at Birmingham Rep.

The most recent staging of Jonson's great satire (by the English Shakespeare Company in 1990) reduced the play to a clueless Carry On Up The Grand Canal, obscuring the dark energies at work in this piece. Venice seemed to have been re-imagined as a jolly end-of-the-pier-style Blackpool. Volpone's lusted-after treasure, wheeled on in supermarket trolleys, was just a tawdry load of trinkets with none of the compulsive, glitteringly sterile appeal that has made it such a false god. You'd never have guessed that Volpone is one of the most astringent comedies every written.

Alexander's production, which is set in Edwardian Venice, has the play's true measure and pulls off the considerable trick of filling the vast cavern of the Rep's main stage in ways that are thematically thoughtful as well as eye-catching. At the start Mosca, the parasite (Gerard Murphy), flings back huge tiles on the floor of Volpone's bedchamber to reveal sunken pits of dazzling golden booty. Exhibiting the folly of the greed-crazed, Voltore (Charles Millham), one of the legacy-hunters, attempts to warm his hands in the gold's deceptive glare. The stairs down which they make their clattering entrances to the sick room also help drolly expose the avidity of these human vultures.

When the play ventures into the outside world, Volpone's kinky Klimt-esque screen is whisked away to reveal a canal- side cafe patronised by a score of extras and surmounted by a huge bridge that doubles as the public gallery in the court scenes. In an additional touch to demonstrate the hero's talent for heartless improvisation, Bernard Horsfall's Volpone gets out of a scrape by coolly hijacking the white stick and dark glasses of a blind man who then topples into the Grand Canal. The design allows for business that's revealing as well as space-filling. The self-regarding priggishness of the 'virtuous' Bonario (Max Gold) is beautifully underlined here by having him insist on following Mosca at a safe, unincriminating distance, like some coy sexual pick-up. On the complexities of Kit Surrey's large set, the parasite is then able to lead him a pretty dance.

Murphy's fine Mosca has a provokingly unfussed air and he swears devoted loyalty to each of the dupes in a manner that almost dares them to perceive its blatant insincerity. He clearly gains a deadpan enjoyment from seeing how avarice prevents them seeing through the elaborate schemes. Therein lies the morally unbalancing difference between the tricksters and their victims. Volpone and Mosca are in it for the game as well as the gold. The gulls, as instanced by Jamie Newall's grotesque Corvino (dementedly distrustful, yet prepared in the end to prostitute his wife), are all stupid cupidity. With a fine display of roguish finger-wagging and pointed phrasing, a calm, sinister Murphy also conveys well how, after the first brush with the law, Mosca plays on his master's insecurity, urging caution to incite him to its disastrous opposite.

To emphasise that even the Venetian judges aren't exempt from corruption, Nicholas Hytner's production showed them, at the end, scavenging like grave-desecrators in Volpone's treasure pits. A sense of this is about the only thing missing from Alexander's acute, enjoyable account.

'Volpone' runs to 26 June (021- 236 4455)

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