The result of an exciting collaboration between NYLon Projects and The Mill Co. Project, the Hackney Volpone is a reimagining of Ben Jonson’s classic con-trick comedy with “a grounding both in the present day and in the community”. Exploring the relevance of the play’s themes of greed and corruption to modern audiences, the production brings together experienced performers with a diverse, enthusiastic group of Hackney locals, some of whom spoke to A Younger Theatre about their experience of working on the show.
Despite her long-term passion for performing, aspiring actor Melissa Bethune didn’t go to drama school, and described being in Volpone as “a great learning experience. Being around the professional actors is very helpful. With this type of language, [Jonson] being a Shakespeare contemporary, it’s really nice to hear professionals do it – not just to go to the theatre and watch it, but seeing the rehearsals, seeing how they work with the language, the changes they make and where they stress words – it’s amazing! I’m sort of stalking them all the time just so I can learn from them!”
Keon Martial-Phillip, who, at 17, is the production’s youngest cast member, agreed. “They treat you like you’re one of them, and I think that’s important, because if you feel like you’re beneath them, you’re not going to have much confidence. They’ve given us all advice and they help us out if there’s anything we need help with. You raise your game when you see them working.”
Designed to reflect the Hackney community, the production incorporates elements of the everyday lives of its local cast members. Bethune explained, “As the community actors, we’re meant to represent the modern Hackney, so there are different races and different age ranges. We’re also working on costumes that reflect our own day-to-day life.” Nevertheless, film historian Stephen Hart assured us that “it’s not just about the costumes”. While the text itself has not been significantly altered, there are “modern cultures represented… in terms of design, there’s a combination of things. I think it feels very special because of that,” he said.
With its Early Modern language, the text itself is perhaps not the easiest for theatre newcomers to get to grips with, but there has been plenty of support available. “I struggled with some of it to begin with,” said Martial-Phillip, “but the other cast members have been really great with helping me to understand it, as have Mel [Assistant Director] and Anna [Director].” Hart was also appreciative of the help on offer. “There’s going to be a read-through in two-three weeks where we’ll be asking questions and having things explained to us,” he said, adding, “It’s nice to feel that if we do have a problem, we can ask.”
For all that, the local actors are still given plenty of freedom to build their characters. For Martial-Phillip, the best thing about working on the show is the chance it offers him to bring his own ideas to the table. “It’s been fun to play around with that, to see what works and what doesn’t.” For Hart, too, a little independent research into the play’s context has helped the language to “unfold”.
Acquiring acting skills is far from the only benefit the project offers its cast members. Bethune has particularly enjoyed “interacting with different sorts of people”. Unlike the youth drama productions she has previously worked on where everyone was in the same age bracket, being part of this show has allowed her to expand the range of people she meets. More broadly, Martial-Phillip believes that projects like this can help challenge people’s negative preconceptions about Hackney. “Every time I tell someone I’m from Hackney, they’re like, ‘Oh, are you in a gang?’ or, ‘That’s a bad area!’ so I think this will have a positive effect on how it’s seen. Early on, we were sent away to create a spoken word piece on what we think about Hackney, and while I was writing it, I started to realise that, although bad things do happen here, there are also a lot of opportunities and great things going on in the borough.”
So, has being a part of the Hackney Volpone persuaded the amateur cast to audition for further productions? “Definitely!” was Martial-Phillip’s immediate reply. “I would do it again, if I got the chance,” Hart agreed. For Bethune, too, it has been a tremendous confidence boost. “It’s helped me to grow and develop as an actor,” she said, happily. “I feel a lot more confident in myself and some of the fears I had about what it might be like in a rehearsal room have been dispelled.”
The Hackney Volpone is showing at The Rose Lipman Building from 23 July until 9 August. For more information, visit the website.