theatre Volpone, National Theatre, London

Paul Taylor is not persuaded by Matthew Warchus's flashy first production for the Olivier, but is captivated by some fine acting

Somewhat perversely, Matthew Warchus's new production of Volpone has chosen to supply the play with a dumbshow prelude and to deprive it of the spoken epilogue Ben Jonson went to the trouble of providing. Both decisions seem to have the one aim: to demote and demystify Volpone, the rich, unmarried magnifico who, pretending to be bed-bound and mortally ill, has put himself on the receiving end of a steady stream of valuable bribes from the avaricious Venetians who want to be named his heir.

Warchus introduces us to this figure via an invented nightmare sequence in which we see Michael Gambon's raddled, Pagliacci-faced Volpone pursued by a swarm of predatory, black-caped legacy hunters through a succession of claustrophobically connected, pannelled rooms that rush past in a queasy swirl, courtesy of the Olivier revolve. Not inaptly, given the avian emblems and nomenclature in the piece, it's like some Jacobean prequel of The Birds. To my mind, though, the sequence is over-preemptive, establishing in one fell swoop that insecurity in the hero (and those drawbacks in his nice little earner) that should only seep through to the audience gradually in the course of the proceedings.

Looking like an unbraced, dissolute Mozart, Simon Russell Beale is blackly hilarious as Mosca, Volpone's diabolically clever side-kick and a cynical worm just waiting to turn. Letting you hear the privately relished contempt under the surface flattery of a line like "You still are what you were, sir", Russell Beale gives throughout a brilliant masterclass in beady disingenuousness. Nowhere more so than in the scene after Volpone's alleged death where he rubs the noses of the other legacy hunters in the fact that the will names him heir by assuming a provokingly pious, butter- wouldn't-melt manner, as though wealth is all a terrible burden and that it's really rather selfless of him to assume the responsibility of it.

The way Warchus stages the ending, however, blurs the fact that Volpone, though less clever than Mosca, is the superior being, with an integrity that prefers self-destruction to compromising with a treacherous comrade. Warchus lets us view the pair undergoing the punishments meted out to them by the corrupt Venetian court. A scourged Mosca crawls across the stage on his belly so that he can peer (with parasitic voyeurism) at Volpone through the bars of the latter's cell. In this version, though, there's still a sense of parity between them because Warchus has cut the epilogue in which Jonson allows the hero to bounce back and appeal to the paying punters for the pardon of applause on aesthetic rather than moral grounds.

Full of bright ideas (the thunder and lightning bring a touch of Lear to the moment when Volpone realises he has been locked out of his own house by his side-kick), this is a production that none the less frequently drags and in which the characters too often seem to be playing to the audience rather than to one another. Lovers of Jonson owe Warchus a bigger debt of gratitude for his current Devil Is an Ass at Stratford.

In rep, booking: 0171-928 2252

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