Theatre Interview

Anna Jones: A Volpone for Hackney

By | Published on Thursday 31 July 2014

For their latest project NYLon – a theatre group which, you might have worked out, straddles both London and New York – has teamed up with The Mill Co Project for an ambitious rework of Ben Jonson’s 17th Century classic ‘Volpone’.

Called ‘The Hackney Volpone’ and performing at the Rose Lipman Building on the De Beauvoir Estate, the production sees professional actors performing alongside locals from the Hackney community, some taking to the stage for the very first time. It’s a very interesting endeavour, so I sent some questions to director Anna Jones to find out more.

CM: It’s a classic Jacobean play, obviously, but for those who’ve never come across it, can you tell us what it’s about?
AJ: It’s a play about a con trick run by Volpone, a rich Venetian nobleman and his faithful servant, Mosca. Volpone pretends to be on his deathbed in order to secure expensive presents from a series of greedy (already wealthy) legacy hunters. The trick starts to get out of control when Volpone sets his sights on the wife of one of the legacy hunters and Mosca starts to complicate things. All the characters end up at the Scrutineo, the Venetian court, not just once, but twice!

CM: Apparently this is a reworked version of the script; how have you adapted it and how does it differ from the original version?
AJ: Jamel Rodriguez – who co-runs NYLon Projects – and I have worked on the script together, cutting out the subplot involving Sir Politic Would-Be and focusing the action of the play on Volpone and Mosca’s con trick. We then broke the play into twelve episodes rather than the traditional five acts, with titles such as ‘The Legacy Hunters Get Punked’, to help make the rehearsal process more streamlined and the production more immediate.

We’ve been interested in heightening anachronisms in the production world, so contemporary and period costumes sit alongside one another in James Turner’s innovative and bold design, as they do in Elspeth Brooke’s piano accompaniment.

Similarly, we’ve integrated the community cast into specific moments from the play and added modern day improvisation. For instance, there is a market scene in the original that now takes place in a hybrid of Hackney and Venice. The dressing room is part of the set design, sat just behind the main stage, and four of the professional actors double roles. This brings out the theme of storytelling, which is also key to the original play, which has many allusions to the stagecraft within the world of the con trick.

CM: You mentioned having contemporary and period elements side by side. Is ‘Volpone’ a text that has a relevance today?
AJ: Volpone is ultimately a play about greed and the lengths people will go to in order to get more money, even those who already have a great deal of it. It’s also a play in which there are two major court scenes, one of which highlights corruption in the court itself. The big court cases currently and recently in the news were definitely in our minds as we rehearsed these sections.

CM: One of the most interesting things about the show is that it features members of the local community in some of the supporting roles. Why did you decide to do this? What do you aim to achieve with this idea?
AJ: When we approached The MillCo about working with them, we were interested in their mission of integrating local artists and local people, giving artistic opportunities to both at The Rose Lipman.

Performing a play about greed, on a housing estate in Hackney with the City of London just down the road, with a supporting cast of local people immediately brings a certain resonance to the play’s themes.

One of the most powerful moments in the production for me comes when Carol Rowley, a 70 year old life long East Ender, sings the chorus to ‘She Was Poor But She Was Honest’ to Volpone as one of his live-in entertainers – “it’s the rich wot get the money and the poor wot get the blame”.

CM: The performers drawn from the community are of all ages, and drawn from a variety of backgrounds. Tell us a little about them.
AJ: Yes, the performers from the community come from a variety of backgrounds and different professions, from Alison Kakande who works with ex-offenders at The Prince’s Trust – who wanted to give herself the kind of challenge on this project that she normally asks of others – to Keon Martial-Philip, a seventeen year old student at City And Islington College who wants to go on to act professionally. Most of those involved are Hackney residents, although the cast also includes Roberta Pierfederici, who moved to Hackney from Venice – where the play is set, of course – only a month before rehearsals began!

CM: How have the community performers adapted to working alongside professional actors, and vice versa? Are the community performers able to feel confident of their abilities under those circumstances?
AJ: The professional actors have been very welcoming of the community actors and vice versa. Both appreciate the challenges and rewards of a professional/community venture and have embraced them and are supportive of one another.

CM: Is this the first community-involving project you’ve worked on?
AJ: NYLon previously worked with a mix of professional and community actors at The Roundhouse on a research and development workshop of a new play by Stephanie Fleischmann in 2012. However, it is the first time we have worked this way on a production that has a three week run.

The last project we did, ‘The Brooklyn Bumpkin’, was a piece developed with the help of 30 children from an East London primary school. We enjoy working with the audience as a focus group from an early stage and will continue to do this kind of work in the future. I’m sure we will also go on to do another professional/community project in the future.

CM: How was NYLon projects formed? What are the aims of the company?
AJ: Jamel and I met at Yale Drama School in the US. I am from London and he is from New York and we wanted to set up a theatre company which would allow us to create links between the two cities and make work in both places. Moreover, we aim to make dynamic theatre that speaks to the present day and involves a rigorous, playful rehearsal process. We also strive to engage with our audience from an early point in the artistic process and aim to create work that speaks to diverse audiences.

CM: What’s next for the company?
AJ: We have begun an adaptation of Angela Carter’s ‘Book Of Fairy Tales’ that we aim to bring to the stage next year; we will be doing more touring of ‘The Brooklyn Bumpkin’ in schools in London and New York, and are also in the early stages of a devised project about Theolonious Monk’s life and music. Finally, we plan to branch into film with a short project.

‘The Hackney Volpone’ is on at the Rose Lipman Building until 9 Aug. Tickets here.