This Monday sees the opening of Re:Verse Theatre’s production of Volpone, in which I am lucky enough to be playing Celia. In doing my homework on the play and the character, I found there to be much more to Celia than meets the eye (or ear), and she is not often discussed in much depth, so I wanted to share my thoughts and findings here.
Celia’s name (pronounced ‘chay-lee-uh’ in our version) means ‘heavenly one’; she fits Jonson’s scheme of not-so-subtle character names in Volpone where everyone is ‘as it says on the tin’ – the wiley fox, the scrounging birds of prey, the usurping parasite. Our production involves larger-than-life animal masks for all save Celia and Bonaria, who provide the only sense of moral conscience in the play and thus remain human amongst the corrupt bestial beings.
Celia provides a moral pillar for the tale without being very present or very vocal. She emulates qualities held in high regard for women of the era; piety, modesty, loyalty, obedience. Interestingly, in our cut Celia has no counterpart – Lady Would-be is no longer, so we have no reverse seduction scene with which to compare Celia’s response to Volpone. I’m not sure what this does to Celia’s representation other than thrust it further central with harsher focus.
The seduction scene is placed as the climax of the play in that it is the turning point for Volpone, when he loses control of himself and thus his con, making Celia the catalyst for his ruin (herself having self-control in abundance). It is also essentially a battle between good and evil, morality and corruption, the ‘heavenly’ Celia and the ‘satanic’ fox. Good triumphs purely in a lack of damage done, when the cavalry arrives in the form of Bonaria. Neither party has persuaded the other of their cause, it is worth noting.
You can play Celia with as much fire as you like; she remains a damsel in distress no matter the reading, but is at least rescued by a woman in this show, allowing her some breathing room to go full damsel without the trope feeling too archaic. I think it would be a mistake regardless to make her entirely sarcastic just to experiment with radical modern feminism or to avoid the traditional victimhood. Her plight gives her layers and integrity.
She can read as insipid or naive, (she has been called “anaemic”, “completely and intentionally null”) but that’s a dull interpretation. I like to think our Celia is more insightful, in line with Jonson’s intention that she be considered the embodiment of wisdom.
She has feelings she resists, making it clear that goodness comes in how you act, not how you feel, which gives us a tremendous sense of ownership and agency, ever more needed in our current political climate. She is very oppressed in the play, but never by herself – she is what she chooses to be. Her lines do suggest that she blames what happens to her on herself and her beauty, and we (intend to) hint at comment on that in the reading. This for some calls her wisdom and strength into question, a reaction I would argue is misogynistic – it ignores the potency of living with self-doubt (and 100% external coercion) and still somehow staying true to one’s core principles to the point of forsaking life itself.
As audiences we’re not usually interested in watching characters be good and upstanding – we want chaos within the safe space of the auditorium. But this production is happening out in the wild, right in your faces, making it very immediate, and I think now of all times we need to see principles and integrity triumph somewhere.
Jonson’s prose is harder to learn than Shakespeare’s verse, my only level comparator; the rhythm isn’t quite as catchy, but it’s so rich and rewarding to study and spend time with, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know Celia.
Ben’s direction refreshingly acknowledges the mixture of good/bad, funny/foreboding, light/dark that any one given moment is, so what could be played quite flat is very much 3D, breathing and alive. I hope you can make it, and can find something in Celia that speaks to you as she does now to me.