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Henry Goodman on his RSC return in Volpone

'We've grasped that nettle in quite a bold way'

Annette McLaughlin (Lady Politic Would-Be) and Henry Goodman (Volpone)
© Manuel Harlan

Having recently played Brecht's Arturo Ui to acclaim, Henry Goodman's latest stage role is the protagonist of Ben Jonson's classic satire of greed, Volpone. The production marks Goodman's return to the Royal Shakespeare Company for the first time since 2003, and the first time that director Trevor Nunn has worked in the Swan Theatre since he founded it during his time as RSC artistic director.

Henry Goodman as Volpone

Has Volpone long been on your wish list of roles?

It's a play that several directors over the years have suggested doing and for one reason or another it always got put on the backburner. But Trevor was keen to do it and Greg [Doran] was keen for us to come back to the RSC, so everything fell into place. It's been fun for us to reconnect and for me to come back here. It's also nice to come back to Ben Jonson because I had a wonderful time doing a production of Every Man in His Humour in 1986, which was actually the second play after the Swan was created.

How do you perceive the RSC has changed since you were last here?

When I was last here it was, I don't see any point in denying it, in the doldrums to put it mildly. It had a huge £2 million deficit, Adrian Noble had just left, Michael Boyd was about to take over and I came in the interregnum to do Richard III. We had to get the costumes and the set pretty much from stock, literally go down to workshops to find bits and pieces to make a show. That was quite an interesting and in some ways a creative challenge, but there was a real underlying problem and it's wonderful to be here when there's such an amount of good will and thriving energy.

Volpone seems a very pertinent play to our times

I think it speaks to the issue of entitlement. As people get more and more money - getting a flat in Paris and a yacht, or lower down the scale having three holidays a year and changing your phone every year - there's a danger that you assume a sense of entitlement. It speaks to the dangers of the assumption that because I've got the money, I can have whatever I want and I can adapt the morals of the day to me. So that sense of automatic entitlement to wealth and pleasure is put under the spotlight and that's very exciting. But, thrillingly, because it's Jonson he says it through comedy and that's why it's lasted 400 years and still survives.

What can you tell us about the staging?

We don't want to give away, until the production opens, what the precise setting is. But what's exciting is that Ranjit [Bolt - writer and translator] is involved and he and I and Trevor discussed how the play does genuinely lend itself to a modern staging. All I can say is that we've grasped that nettle in quite a bold way, and that designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has come up with some really fun concepts that speak the world today. So the trick is not to diminish Jonson but to delight in his mode and tweak some of the things he said so they relate to current events.


What else is in the pipeline for you this year?

I've been filming heavily in the past year, working on three major films. I just played Trotsky in a film called The Chosen [about Trotsky's final days in Mexico] which is a Spanish film with a fantastic cast. I also did a marvellous film with Antonio Banderas called Altamira, which Hugh Hudson directed, and I've just done a small independent movie [Love Is Thicker Than Water]. So for the first time in many years I've given much more time to filming - I'm trying to rebalance things to allow that to happen. What's also important to me, being the nature of animal that I am, are the concerts I do where I read the private life letters of Schumann and Chopin with Harriet Walter and Juliet Stevenson, accompanied by a pianist called Lucy Parham. I like to keep those going. I'd also like to feed in some directing in future years.

Any idea what you might direct?

Not yet, though I have been approached about a couple of things. What's really key is that you're able to serve fully your company and your text. I've enjoyed working with students over the years, because I love sharing my enthusiasm for theatre. But I think the time has come for me to find a way to take that a little further.

Volpone is currently in previews at the RSC Swan Theatre, ahead of opening on Thursday (9 July 2015), and continues in rep until 12 September