Polly Findlay has taken a bold and, by today’s standards, radical decision in her staging of Ben Jonson’s 1610 comic masterpiece: she sets it in period. This makes total sense since the play, with its satire on greed and folly, offers a vivid picture of the way a plague-afflicted London unleashes moral anarchy.
The fun lies in seeing the criminal trio of Subtle, Face and Dol exploit the cupidity of a troop of willing dupes who believe base metal can be turned into gold. Even more might be made of the threesome’s delight in role-playing but the production captures perfectly the variety of their victims. Ian Redford is outstanding as Sir Epicure Mammon, whose voluptuous verbal fantasies rightly earn a round of applause. Richard Leeming as the tobacconist, Abel Drugger, nicely suggests that his seeming innocence conceals a lust for a rich young widow of whom he memorably says “I do now and then give her a fucus” (a Jacobean cosmetic). Tom McCall as the widow’s angry brother, Kastril, is a creature of flourishing sword-thrusts who looks as if he might faint at the sight of blood.
Findlay also brings out the quarrelsomeness of the central trio. Mark Lockyer is a viciously vituperative Subtle on the constant verge of explosion, Ken Nwosu makes a suitably double-dealing Face and Siobhán McSweeney is all earthy common sense as a Dol who referees their fights.
It’s a production that allows us to relish the intricacy of Jonson’s plotting and that, by setting the action in period, allows us to deduce the parallels with our own predatory times.
- At the Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 6 August. Box office: 01789 403493. Then Barbican, London, from 2 September.