When you broach the subject of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, there are two responses.
Many will simply say they’ve never heard of it. And, fair enough. It is rarely performed and little lauded; scholars often claim its various inconsistencies are proof it was never even finished. However the other camp will loftily warn you that it’s a ‘terribly difficult play‘. A little bit ‘tragedy’ and a touch ‘problem play’, those in the know are inclined to warn audiences they won’t know what to make of it!
However, Nicholas Hytner’s new production at the Olivier at the National Theatre is an accessible marvel.
I have to admit, I couldn’t stop the inevitable inward sigh when I saw the cast traipse onstage in pointedly of-the-moment costumes of suits and cocktail dresses. But, my fears of contrived modernisation were immediately allayed. What is striking about this production is the seamless ease in which Hytner translates its’ themes to our day. The setting may be named as Athens, but the audience are taken on a journey through London; from the offices of Canary Wharf to the lounges and hotspots of Soho. We follow the too-trusting Timon (Simon Russell Beale) as he doles out the cash to his obsequious entourage and ‘friends’, before landing with a bump when he realises his resources are depleted and his generosity will not be repaid.He learns all too late that the praise and adulation is set to dry up the moment his cash does.
Marx famously commented that Timon of Athens is about the ‘power of money‘. Hytner’s version makes this all too apparent, whilst also placing a sharp focus on the aftermath when that power is lost. With current newspaper pages littered with stories of overspending, bankruptcy, debt and accompanying blame and bailouts, could a play feel more relevant?
Hytner and his designer Tim Hatley have worked tirelessly to ensure every detail of their set and characterisation proves too close for comfort. The action opens by juxtaposing the grandiose celebrations of Timon’s privileged and money-grabbing ‘friends’ with the discontent of an ‘OccupyLondon’esque protest group who roam the streets urging action and rebellion against the ruling classes. It is with sharp contrast then that a wordless opening scene introduces THE party to be at as host-with-the-most Timon circulates around a grossly-extravagant party in his honour at an art gallery. As shouts of ‘Timon’ punctuate the air along along with clinking champagne flutes, the competitive honorary gift-giving further identifies Timon as the man of the hour. The National’s audience can’t help but laugh when it’s revealed the base root of the sickening adulation. As his guests applaud his every move and circle him for hand-outs, a ‘Timon Room’ plaque lights up on the gallery wall. The benefaction that has contributed to the oppulent surroundings has made him a hero. And yet, token cynic and refreshing commentator Apemantus (Hilton McRae) outlines that we can expect a rather different treatment of Timon, ‘when the means are gone that buy this praise‘.
And ‘the means‘ and ‘the praise‘ run out sooner rather than later. We watch Timon’s greedy guests swarm on luxury goody-bags (another winningly- of-our-time detail from Hytner) and a celebratory banquet he generously provides. However, the very next day anxious PA Flavia (Deborah Findlay) must send out Timon’s aides to collect the sums he’s owed in order to save him from imminent bankruptcy. But, what a surprise! The young sloaney Timon kindly bought out of jail prefers to spend his money in the private members’ clubs than assist with his liquidity crisis. And on and on it goes as senators, businessmen and ‘friends’ desert him whilst creditors hone in.
Simon Russell Beale, veteran of the stage, certainly gives a great and wide-ranging performance. In the first half alone he has to metamorphose from a, frankly unmemorable,suited and booted money man to a dispossessed vagabond bemoaning the morally bankrupt Athens from a literal and emotional wasteland.
However, the play loses some of its bite in the second half. With all the quick-wit, fast action, and humour that comes before the interval, the second half can’t help but feel a touch inferior. Many scholars cite Shakespeare’s contemporary, Thomas Middleton, as having written parts of the play. Perhaps it is this dual authorship that accounts for some of the inconsistencies, underdeveloped characterisations and strange plot happenings? There’s no disputing Timon has had the harshest of treatment. But, we’re offered little insight into Timon the individual and so it is hard to accept his sudden but belated vitriol for humanity. It might have once saved him from financial disaster, but now it doesn’t feel entirely authentic.
One cannot deny though that this is a must-see production. It is to Hytner’s credit that he has made something so relevant and thought-provoking out of an oft-overlooked work. And, whilst I had been most excited to see Russell Beale, the wonderful surprise was that it was far more of an ensemble piece than I had anticipated. There is no doubt that he is a superb actor but, in this play, Russell Beale is best filling his role when he allows others to come to the fore. Indeed, without giving too much away, this is emphasised in the final scene when Timon’s final fate is mentioned only briefly, as if irrelevant.
For, the seeds of thought sown at the start of Timon of Athens come to fruition at the close. As Marx noted, Timon is made much of by his beneficiaries, but is set to become merely a faceless, nameless member of the discontent once paupered. His platform and prestige is fiscally-based, and once devoid of the cold hard cash, he becomes a bit superfluous. Apemantus is heard to claim early on that ‘happier is he that has no friend to feed‘. But, Timon finds no relief in his isolation. In ruin, he is still beset upon by grasping masses, even by those politically disenchanted who feel themselves to be so distinct from the upper echelons.
Hytner’s production is topical and ever-so-clever. He pokes fun at greed, mocks easy-friendships based on hard cash, and offers a glimpse of the mass political unrest we’ve seen somewhere before. However, the production refrains from feeling too finger-wagging. And, a good thing too. After all, we all enjoy a nice goody-bag, don’t we?
Tickets available here until the 31st October 2012
(Images: Johan Persson, courtesy of The National Theatre)