This is part of an ongoing series of regional Shakespeare coverage. It’s Tori here with the latest in Shakespeare news from Toronto.
Shakespeare Bash’d is back with another exciting, rarely performed, early modern gem. On October 29th Bash’d will hold a staged reading of Ben Jonson’s Volpone, or the Fox at 8pm at the Baby G. I had the opportunity to chat with director James Wallis and Andrew Joseph Richardson who is playing Volpone about what makes this reading so special.
Tori: Why did you decide to tackle this play?
James: I’m fascinated by the Elizabethan and Jacobean period. The theatrical culture was enormous and full of ambiguity. The theatre used poetry and allegory as its main story telling devices and I connect to that. Ben Jonson is one of Shakespeare’s most important contemporaries, but there is a vast difference between them. Volpone is one of his most effective comedies; a play that tackles satire with an edge of irony, which I think is one of Jonson’s strengths. It is both classical in its construction, but also highly contemporary in the subject matter. Plus, the characters were rewarding (and extremely complicated) so I was excited to bring in some great actors to work on the play.
T: This seems to be a pretty dark season for BASH’d, is there any reason for that?
J: Julia and I noticed this a while back. The world is a very scary and depressing place right now. I was very hopeful when we planned this season but I guess our sense was moving towards the dark and opaque. All of the plays this year have to do with greed in some form: money, power, sex, etc. They are mostly all about avaricious men who seek gratification.
While Volpone, in a subtle way, is ambiguous about the moral right/wrong outcome of such decisions, it does have a moral message. Richard III and Measure for Measure think differently. Is Richard III at the end of the play forgotten or does his tyrannical, maniacal chaos reign? What will Isabella do, compelled to marry the Duke after his manipulation of her?
This is a fundamental difference between Jonson and Shakespeare, while one confronts with both sides of the pen, the other questions with no strings attached. Both tell similar stories (horrifying and all too real stories) but with different points of view, and different indications for desired interpretation.
T:I noticed that you are a few characters short, why did you decide not to include the politically incorrect and aptly named Nano, Androgyno, and Castrone?
J: Well, I found them highly offensive but also, in a staged reading setting, I didn’t know how to present them. They represent a satirical and grotesque side of Jonson, which is valid, but at this time in our society, possibly not useful. If I worked on this play again I would consider putting them in or adapting them to something different, but I don’t know if I would end up using them. The Jacobean’s were not sensitive to the oppression of all, and certainly Jonson chose to exploit rather than identify.
T: What about this production are you most excited for?
J: The actors and the text. It’s a fantastic group working on a difficult and compelling play. Plus, how often do you get to see/listen to a Jonson play? Not a lot, which is too bad.
T: What was most challenging about taking on this play?
J: It’s a nasty play. Jonson is a complicated writer, both in his verse and style, so he must be understood completely in order to play the story. That takes time (though that’s fun) and requires the actors to buy into the various difficulties and uncomfortable bits of the play. I’ve done what I can to allow them room to react and give them agency within the play. We all have to come together and tackle this play with all it’s gross, overt problems and do it well.
T: Why did you decide on a staged reading as opposed to a full-scale production for this play?
J: Staged readings are part of the history of Shakespeare BASH’d. For our company, it’s important to explore every facet of the plays of Shakespeare. But with the staged readings, we’re able to explore other plays in a streamlined process, where we can delve into the plays in a simple form. They are fun and unique, as most of the plays we present have rarely been produced, which I think is very exciting. Plus, it’s completely and utterly about the text. That’s Candyland to me.
T: What do you want audiences to know before coming to see Volpone?
J: Jonson is one of the period’s, and the English language’s, greatest tacticians. His comedy is didactic, overt, moral, and satirical but with a wry smile underneath. Don’t trust him, he has it in for the audience (I’m mostly kidding.)
Finally, this play is about two people playing a game with a society. I’d ask the audience to wonder: who do you think wins in the end?
AJ: Thankfully it’s a reading, so I don’t need to embody and live-out the whole shebang. Volpone, who is super rich and loves gold religiously, says (on the very first page, no less), ‘I glory / More in the cunning purchase of my wealth / Than in the glad possession’. This guy loves the adventurous game he is playing. I can play the part like I’m having fun doing all kinds of tricksy stuff to win a game. The leap comes when he crosses lines like delighting in others’ misery and personifying gold as a person to be acquired like an object. His unchecked urge to twist the knife is the over-reaching which brings about the end of his game. I really have to ride his wave to the furthest extent of his obsession or the game won’t be fun. As bad as he is, he is even worse (from the perspective of our 21st century lense) in the full 3+ hour version. Thankfully the reading has been cut by director James Wallis to 2+ hours.
T: Volpone or Volpona? How do you pronounce your character’s name?
T: What are you most excited about this production?
AJ: I’m so excited to perform without memorizing my lines!
T: What have you found the most challenging?
AJ: This play is almost entirely in blank verse, which is usually super easy to learn, but Jonson isn’t as perfect as Shakespeare. Technically, I know the rhythm and the sense, but I’m still working out where to breathe. The play moves very quickly. I’ll need to do some lip exercises in the days leading up to the performances to ensure clarity in my speech.
T: How has it been working with BASH’d again? Is there any friendly rivalry between BASH’d and Ruff?
AJ: I’m so happy to be with BASH’d again. These guys perform uncomplicated, text-forward productions of my favourite plays in venues with beer at the ready. That’s up my alley. There’s a lot of artist crossover in our companies; I’ve always seen BASH’d as peers. Our Macbeth was done with puppets, so it was completely different from their excellent production three years ago. Our Macbeth, Alex Crowther, was in BASH’d’s remount of Taming of the Shrew, and their Macbeth, Dave Gingerich (Ross), was in our production of Richard III. We’re more like bed-fellows than rivals.
T: What do you want audiences to know before coming to see Volpone?
AJ: It’s more topical than ever. A man with a lot of power attempts to feed his lust with an innocent woman. He is enabled by multiple characters. And unlike a lot of Jacobean theatre, the offenders in this play face consequences! I want the audience to keep in mind that Volpone and Mosca, his parasitic servant, are playing a game.
T: Thanks so much for chatting with me! I can’t wait to see the show!
If you’re as excited as I am (and I’m sure you are) head to http://www.shakespearebashd.com/ to grab your tickets.
Advance tickets for Volpone, or The Fox – A Staged Reading are are available for $15 each.
There are only a limited number available online.
A limited number of Pay What You Can tickets will be available at the door (cash only).
Arrive early, as they won’t last long!
The event is taking place at The Baby G – 1608 Dundas St W.