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)

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May


Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama


Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before