Volpone, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The fox has all the lines
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The Independent Culture

"Good morning to the day; and next, my gold!" declares the magnifico, Volpone, at the opening of Ben Jonson's satire on a corrupt society. Lez Brotherstone's design, in opulent red and black, sets the action in a timeless Venice, its murky waters lapping beneath a reflective glass floor surrounded by stylish mosaics.

Striking in its simplicity, enhanced by Volpone's "shrine" of six jewel-encrusted statuettes, it's a versatile backdrop against which Volpone (the fox) and his servant Mosca (the fly) invite us to witness their cunning deceptions. And their ultimate downfall.

In Greg Hersov's production, Gerard Murphy is both wily and bullish as the anti-hero seduced by his riches. Imbuing his words and actions with an airy, uninhibited intoxication, he is high on the power he has to manipulate human greed. Keeping a decidedly clearer head, Mosca, resourcefully played by Stephen Noonan, buzzes elusively and tirelessly around as the other half of this devious duo.

Taken in by Volpone's brazen scheme of pretending to be dying in order to elicit gifts from would-be beneficiaries, the glib Voltore, the doddering Corbaccio and the grasping merchant Corvino (vulture, crow and raven respectively) hover anxiously, willing Volpone to pass away. The higher the stakes, the more frantically everyone works, on both sides of the coin.

There are no depths to which each legacy hunter will not sink to ensure that he will inherit Volpone's fortune. Corvino even offers up another acquisition, his beautiful young wife, for an intimate liaison with the trickster. But Volpone's sexual greed proves his undoing. With his apparent death, the twists he so carefully put in place start to uncoil. When the fox pretends to be dead in order to savour the spectacle of the carrion birds come to feed on his carcass and their own avarice, Murphy's Volpone becomes a mincing, self-important Irish officer, while Noonan's Mosca slips effortlessly into the role of heir, nearly outfoxing his master.

As is customary these days, Hersov drops the secondary plot involving Sir Politic Would-be and Peregrine. There's quite enough buffoonery from Volpone's entourage, originally a dwarf, eunuch and fool, here transformed into "dude", "nun" and "nurse". They play bit parts in his grand plan as well as clowning around with the knockabout physicality of commedia dell'arte, adding, in the musical interludes, some good imitations of bad Italian television. The more grotesque the humour, the more bizarre 17th-century Venice becomes.

All that glitters is not gold, however. Some of the jokes misfire, such as the presence of HIV in the not-very-funny list of illnesses that can be cured by the magic medicine Volpone (disguised as a quack) is peddling. The same applies to the unfortunate visual association between the wheelchair-bound Volpone, feigning incapacity, and the late Christopher Reeve.

Far from bringing a Midas touch to Jonson's savage attack on society, Hersov's strangely unfocused production, not always lucidly spoken, places too much emphasis on distracting surface humour. When this comes at the expense of the powerfully dark underside of the web of deception Jonson spins, the play loses its resonances with today's money-grasping culture of unrestrained self- interest, not quite touching the contemporary nerve that it should.

To 27 November (0161-833 9833)

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