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

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?