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Steven Pacey in Volpone - Reviews by Mistletoe12 and Hugbot

Steven Pacey in Volpone 
22nd August 2015 at The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reports by
Mistletoe12 and Hugbot

Trains, Buses and Automobiles

It was still dark outside when my alarm screamed at me to get out of bed. The date had finally rolled around to Saturday 22nd August and I would be heading to Stratford-upon-Avon to watch Steven Pacey perform in a production of Volpone at the Swan theatre.

Does London ever sleep? I boarded my first bus of the day at 6:20am to find it was already packed. Low emissions buses are slow enough to drive you crazy, but I did make it to Euston on time.

The Supreme Commander, Travisina and I boarded the mainline train to Rugby (smooth journey) where we hooked up with Clareblues - in my case, meeting her for the first time. She kindly drove us to the Park & Ride, where we all hopped onto what would be my fourth bus of the day to take us directly to Stratford town centre.

I haven’t returned to the West Country in a long time, which made it a real pleasure to take in all the craft shops, architecture and inspiring art galleries as we weaved our way through the crowds (shanks pony to add to the transport list) on our way to the Fourteas Tea Room. As the name suggests, it’s a 1940s inspired tearoom and absolutely captures the authenticity of the era with posters, bunting and memorabilia appropriate to the period.

Steven, Hugbot and Abs202 were already seated at a table close to the window. Meeting all three for the first time, I shook hands with Hugbot (a genuine sweetheart) and Abs (a lovely guy) whilst reserving a hug and a kiss for the charming Mr Pacey.

What can I say about Steven? His initial foray into Blake’s 7 activities coincides with the era I took a break from full involvement with the fandom, so in fact I’d never had the privilege to make his acquaintance – something I’m glad to say I have now rectified.

Steven is charismatic, considerate and his old school manners contributed towards the fun time had by all in the Fourteas Tea Room. Did I imagine him mentioning the play would be filmed in order to be shown on BBC3?

Because he had to head back to the theatre at midday, we said a temporary goodbye and with many photos stored on various devices we walked a short distance from the tearoom to sit in a different venue to eat lunch.

Diets are thrown to the wayside on days out; I haven’t eaten chips in months – I did on Saturday and darn good they tasted too, particularly since the company of the people sat at the table in the cosy pub enhanced the eating experience.

Wilfully ignoring the necessity to properly digest all the food we’d consumed, we made our way to the RSC theatre to watch Volpone.

It didn’t matter that we weren’t all sitting together for the show; the Swan is a galleried, intimate theatre - it allows the audience to become fully immersed.

I’d previously caught a review of Volpone on BBC Radio 4 in which they praised the show’s lead actor (Henry Goodman) and Steven’s character, Sir Politic Would-Be. They were absolutely correct in their assessment; Volpone is a wonderful show, with great, energetic performances from all the cast.

I liked the modern adaptations made to Ben Jonson’s classic satire. The pop culture references were worked seamlessly into a play about greed. This production was engaging, funny and clever from the moment the bell rings at the start through to its natural conclusion with loud appreciative applause filling the theatre.

Steven’s performance was great fun - dodgy yellow waistcoat notwithstanding. I won’t detail a certain scene in which he appeared – something he kept quiet about during tea. But it’s certainly an image of him that will stay in my mind a long time!

He graciously met us outside the theatre after the play, happily indulging individual/group photos and autographs (my thanks to the Supreme Commander for supplying the prints) and was genuinely pleased we’d enjoyed the show and his performance. I’m not sure I’ll be able to dislike Tarrant quite as much any more!

I’d rather naively assumed that because we were heading away from London, it wouldn’t be as hot as the weather forecast had predicted. But the weather gods appeared to know which day I’d be travelling – it was stiflingly hot all day, and with the added humidity, I felt like a crispy roast potato sitting in a hot oven at Christmas. Not that it deterred any of us from making the most of the picturesque scenery.

Following Clareblues’ advice, we took a short ferry ride, hand cranked - not by us, I should add. We inhaled the country air and snapped photos, including ‘Avon’ related signs, working locks and meandering swans. Ice-creams were there to be licked, visitors listening to cricket scores on the radio and casual conversations with my fellow fans as we took a leisurely walk around the river.

Since three of us had pre-booked train tickets, it meant saying goodbye to the boys in the group. (Hugbot, I do hope you enjoyed your remaining time in England.) Clareblues once again schlepped us back to Rugby train station – you were an excellent tour guide and did a marvellous job organising this outing. I hope your mini mobile’s suspension survived myself and Travisina thudding into the back seats with all the finesse of a herd of elephants.

It may not have been my final journey of the day but heading home on a fast train with my travelling companions was a lovely way to wind down: writery talk, melted chocolate, flicking through photos and a well-deserved attempt at snoozing.

With the nights starting to draw in, a drink and chat with Supreme Commander at Euston in order to revive energy levels, marked the almost end to a brilliant day. My son insists on chaperoning me home late at night, it’s both appreciated and in this instance the ideal opportunity to tell him how much fun we all had in Stratford – meeting Steven, great company, top notch show and more wonderful memories to add to my B7 2015 album.


Shades of Reality


In Babylon 5: The Lost Tales, Sheridan is whisked away in his sleep by the techno mage Galen. To Galen’s surprise, Sheridan is aware that this is not a dream, and he explains, "I’ve had enough experience to know the difference between dream-real, magic-real and real-real." During my stay in Stratford, I had to think of this quote because I experienced all three different types of reality myself – plus a few more.

Real reality (I): As August 22nd would be such an eventful day and both Thetis and I were already in Stratford a few days earlier, I suggested to her to have tea on Thursday. That was a wise decision, as it later turned out that Thetis could not take part in the gathering on Saturday. There are not many opportunities to get together with our Australian members, and I am glad that I managed to meet her.

We went to the Fourteas Tea Room for afternoon tea and a nice chat, and eventually she asked what I was doing in my ‘real life.’ Although I answered the question seriously, I could not resist pointing out that my Horizon activities do not strike me as particularly unreal. For me, Horizon is not so much about discussing the troubles and tribulations of make-believe characters, but about meeting real people from all over the world, and really special and inspiring people at that! Here I was again, having tea in England with someone from the other side of the world! These are real experiences that I would not have without Horizon. And soon there would be even more encounters with wonderful people.

Dream reality: When I checked my emails at my B&B, I learned that new member Abs202 would join the throng, although he could only get a ticket for a standing place. That instantly reminded me of a peculiar dream I had had only a few nights before.

In this dream, I was in the gallery of the theatre. I sat in the front row, but the architecture of the theatre was strange, as the stage was directly below the gallery. In order to see anything, I had to stand up and lean over the railing. For some obscure health & safety reason, there were also broad planks fastened to the railings that obscured the view even more. I already wondered what the people in the back rows were doing, when it suddenly hit me that I had bought a ticket for the ground level. In a hurry, I left the gallery and fled downstairs.

Please don’t try to figure out what my subconscious had tried to tell me in this dream. (By the way, I left out a tiny but important detail that may be the key to the meaning. You don’t have to know everything about me, do you?)

To learn that one of us would actually have to stand throughout the whole performance was a strange coincidence after having had this dream. In the real reality, I sat in the stalls alright. I could also glance up to the gallery to make sure that the standing places allowed for a good and unobscured view of the stage. But I am already jumping ahead. Let’s get back to the choronological order of events.

Real reality (II): On Thursday, Thetis and I had tried to book a table for Saturday, but the staff told us that they could not take any more bookings for the time in question. However, they were sure they could manage to get a table for us when we called half an hour before the appointed time.

When I arrived at the Fourteas at 10.30 for table scouting duty, the staff did their best to accomodate our group. At first, they only had a table for six plus an adjacent table, but after a few minutes they informed me that they now had laid out a table for seven near the entrance.

In the meantime, I had already met Abs202. There are certain advantages of using my real face as my avatar. When I sat down, a complete stranger approached me. It was of course Abs202 who had recognised me. A minute later, he was no longer a stranger (typical Horizon experience). As you might already know, his real name is Justin. Whatever we Blakeans associate with this name, get it out of your mind. ‘Our’ Justin is the total opposite, a really nice fellow, and it was great to meet him.

We had been talking for a while when Steven entered the room. I had the privilege of beckoning him to our table. Now he sat there with two complete strangers, but we had the opportunity to introduce ourselves unhurriedly, and I could convey the greetings of Paula and Brad (‘your American stalkers’) and Lurena. At 11 o’clock, our ladies duly arrived, and the conversation got even more lively.

There it was again, the wonderful reality of meeting real people from all over the world. It was great to see Clare, Travisina and the Supreme Commander again, to get to know Mistletoe and Abs202, and to meet Steven Pacey. He is a really charming gentleman without any airs and graces, talking to his fans as equals, and this made our meeting even more worthwhile.

Steven left for the theatre, while the rest of us repaired to the Garrick Inn to have lunch. Strangely enough, the hottest topic was not Steven Pacey but Nathan Fillion. But I dare not give you any details.

Play reality: Although we went to see Steven Pacey in the first place, the star of the show was obviously Henry Goodman as Volpone. He was really brilliant and delivered the different facets of his character with gusto – the cunning deceiver, the virile seducer and the diverse roles Volpone himself played to dupe his victims: a doddering old man who seems to be more dead than alive, a chummy police officer and a quack doctor with the air of an Italian thimblerigger.

Steven’s part was that of the aptly named Sir Politic Would-Be. His role was only loosely connected to the main action (in modern terms, you would call it the B-plot), and I have the sad duty to inform you that he played a complete and utter fool. But that he did with relish!

Volpone is a conman if ever there was one, but his victims are such a bunch of greedy and thoroughly unpleasant characters that the audience is completely on his side... that is, until the third act, when the story suddenly changes in tone. Someone once said that a comedy is only good if it verges on tragedy. When Volpone tries to seduce the wife of one of his usual victims, he starts off in a rather charming way so that you may think that he really is the worthier man. But the scene gets very nasty when he threatens to force her. She is saved in the nick of time, but the play now has a more serious tone when she and her rescuer are falsely accused and Volpone, for whom all his previous machinations were just a funny game, discovers his conscience and gets himself trapped in the schemes of his servant. Watching a harmless comedy that runs smoothly from the beginning to the end can be quite entertaining, but it is these changes in tone and these disturbing interruptions in the prevailing mirth that make for a more memorable experience and the high quality of the play. It is a bit like watching Orbit.

This was a very modern production. Funnily enough, the older I get, the less conservative I become. In my early twenties, I loathed any modernisations and would only watch traditional productions. Today, I have a very different perspective. Both ways of bringing an old play to the stage have their respective merits and dangers. Of course there are many ways to fail when you introduce modern traits. Often the choice of costumes is very poor – either degrading the characters to archetypes instead of individuals (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in children’s clothing playing with yo-yos to symbolise their childhood friendship with Hamlet) or indulging in extravagant special effects with no relation to the author’s intent (Schiller’s Robbers with people stalking around in spacesuits). With this production of Volpone, they did not fall into these traps. The costumes and settings served to make the Jacobean play relevant to our time and did a good job in conveying the original meaning.

Even the text did not remain untouched, but that was no problem either. Sir Pol’s line about his ‘followers’ is actually in the original text, but by wielding a tablet computer Steven gave a whole new meaning to this word. Apart from that, there were also some changes to the text. Several obscure references to long forgotten superstitions and political circumstances were replaced by allusions to corn circles (yes, Sir Pol is that gullible), global warming, the Greek Euro and Signor Berlusconi. But these alterations did not feel contrived, and I guess Ben Jonson would have approved. For me, all these modernisations were actually proof of the timeless reality of the play. It was written 400 years ago, but it is still valid today. The substance of the play is not outdated but works perfectly even in 2015; you only have to twist the outer appearance a little.

Magic reality: You won’t believe it, but I could even sense a touch of magic on two occasions during the play. First, I witnessed a manifestation of Clare’s ability of precognition in the wise choice of her seat. While Volpone did his quack doctor routine, Sir Pol and his young companion retired to the edge of the stage to observe and comment on the action. Guess which part of the stage they choose? Exactly. Steven sat down smack in front of Clare! (I shouldn’t use the word ‘smack’ in this context.)

The second incident was even more magical. In order to understand what was going on, you have to read Clare’s story The Iron, the Witch and the Bathrobe in the August fanfic challenge. Ready? Good. Near the end of the play, Steven suddenly appeared on stage wearing... drum roll!... a bathrobe! I looked at Clare; Clare looked at me; we both laughed and I am sure we had the same thought. I could not see the wand in her hand, so I guess she had hidden it very quickly. However, a few moments later her magic spun completely out of control when Sir Pol tried to escape his (imagined) enemies by disguising himself as his wife. Whatever you think of Steven Pacey, he surely does not look very feminine (especially when sporting a beard). The scene had a rather bizarre Frank’n’Furter touch. ‘Oh dear,’ Clare whispered, but I got the feeling that she nonetheless found it amusing.

Real reality (III): After the show, we met briefly with Steven for autographs and the odd photo. Then we had a short stroll around the park, crossing the Avon in a hand-operated chain ferry. Not many people manage to cross Avon and live, but we survived! It was a bright and sunny day (probably because I had brought my umbrella), and a few of us treated themselves to ice cream.

Sadly, our ladies had to leave rather early. Abs202 and I had a pint in the pub, but then he also went on his way home. That left me as the only remaining member of our expedition in Stratford. A wonderful day was over, but my strange experiences with mixed realities continued.

Magic play reality: The next morning the landlord of my B&B told me that on weekends, there are always open air performances in the park behind the theatre. On this Sunday, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was performed by teenage actors of the Arclight Drama School in Dublin. They gave a lovely performance, and I thoroughly enjoyed the play although it rained through the last act. (I should have brought my umbrella.) The girl who played Puck was absolutely fabulous. She acted with every muscle of her face, and there was a great chemistry between her and Oberon. They both stayed in character during the whole course of the play, even when they were not on stage and no-one was watching them. Actually, I have seen worse Pucks in professional productions!

As this was an open air performance and there were no proper dressing rooms, I also experienced a funny superimposition of realities when Titania played with her smartphone before the performance and she and Puck huddled under unfairylike umbrellas afterwards!

Past reality: Staying in Stratford for about a week, I naturally visited Shakespeare’s birthplace and some other Shakespeare-related old houses. There were ‘No Photographs’ signs all over the place, but no-one was bothered, and all the tourists took snapshots to their heart’s content. I didn’t, not out of a teutonic sense of obedience, but because you can’t catch the atmosphere anyway and I did not want to destroy the moment by trying to save it. So I just walked around, savouring the vibes of history. It was very interesting and instructive to compare the craftsman’s house where Shakespeare was born and the later home of his daughter who had married a wealthy physician. Having a glimpse of the surroundings where li’l Will grew up, played games and learned to read and write, and seeing the circumstances in which he and his contemporaries actually lived was a very touching experience.

However, I deliberately refrained from visiting one of the must-sees in Stratford: Shakespeare’s grave. Why should I have a look at that? After all, he is immortal.

Advantages of the Horizon reality: Watching TV shows and theatre plays in English is a completely different thing to actually communicating in a foreign language. There had been a few silly misunderstandings during my stay in Stratford (and I bet there had been some more that I did not realise). But that won’t stop me from coming to visit you. On the contrary, the more language practice I get, the better. I even seem to be getting used to flying, so I should get used to talking English as well.

Speaking of flying, there is of course no considerable ‘jet lag’ for me, as our time zones differ only by one hour. The funny thing though is that my inner clock never adjusts to British time. When I am in merry old England, it is always one hour later for me, which makes me get up and go to bed rather early. According to the saying, my England trips should thus make me healthy, wealthy and wise. It would be rather foolish to forgo this advantage, wouldn’t it?


Photos by Hugbot and Clareblues
Volpone Rehearsal photo by Manuel Harlan, for the Royal Shakespeare Company


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