16 July 2012

Timon of Athens - National Theatre, Friday 13th July 2012

Timon of Athens likes nothing better than to please his friends. He lavishes gifts on them, holds entertainments for them, grants dowries to them. The word around Athens is that if you ask Timon for something, you shall receive it in abundance. Give Timon a gift, and he shall give you one with triple the value. So it is that the citizens of Athens flock to him to flatter, praise, and esteem him.
One citizen, the cynical philosopher Apemantus, warns Timon that his friends are parasites who care only for his gold. If Timon continues to squander money on them, Apemantus says, he will bankrupt himself. Timon’s honest and loyal steward, Flavius, also cautions Timon that his extravagance will one day lead to his ruin. Ruin eventually arrives in the form of unpaid bills.
When Timon turns for help to the very people upon whom he showered his favours, they give him only cold shoulders and excuses. Their friendship, it seems, is as empty as Timon’s purse. He then announces a great banquet and invites these same people to partake. Believing he must have come into new wealth, they gladly accept his invitation. However, after they arrive, Timon serves them only rotten meat and cold water, Throwing dishes at them, he drives them out of his house and then quits Athens vowing never to return. Turning to look at the wall of the city one last time, he heaps a soliloquy of curses upon Athens and its citizens.
Taking up residence in a cave near the sea, he lives off the land and spends most of his waking hours bitterly denouncing fickle humankind. One day, while digging for roots to eat, he finds gold, a great cache of it. He is rich once again. It so happens that General Alcibiades, who has also been wronged by the Athenians and has been banished from Athens, comes upon Timon in the woods near the cave.. When Alcibiades mentions that he is gathering an army to make war on Athens, Timon sees an opportunity for revenge and gives him gold to finance the venture.
Word of Timon’s new-found gold spreads, and three bandits descend upon the cave to it. Timon does not shrink from the robbers; nor does he try to protect his cache of gold. Instead, he willingly gives them gold. His hatred for humankind is so strong that it nearly shocks the bandits into becoming honest men. After the bandits leave, the good and worthy Flavius arrives at the cave seeking the company and love of his master. At first Timon rebukes him, too. Later, when he realizes that Flavius has come in search of companionship, not gold, Timon praises him as the only honest man on earth, then gives him a large portion of gold and bids him adieu.
Representatives of the Athenian senate arrive and praise Timon and then ask for gold to purchase the means to shore up their defenses against the invading army of Alcibiades. But Timon dashes their hopes when he explains that the kindness he has in mind is an invitation to Athenians to come out and hang themselves on a useless tree that he plans to cut down. Timon then dismisses the senators. Thus, their only recourse is to prostrate themselves before Alcibiades and beg mercy. Back at the walls of Athens, Alcibiades agrees to spare the innocent and destroy only those who wronged him and Timon. A soldier then arrives with news that Timon has died.
Timon of Athens – Simon Russell Beale
Flavia, his Steward – Deborah Findlay
Flaminia – Olivia Llewellyn
Servillius – Tim Samuels        } Timon's staff
Philotus – Alfred Enoch
Lucillius, an errant slave – Stavros Demetraki,Apemantus, a philosopher – Hilton McRae
A poet – Nick Sampson
A painter – Penny Layden
A jeweller – Jo Dockery
Lucullus, a banker – Paul Bentall
Sempronia, a politician – Lynette Edwards
Alcibiades, a rebel – Ciaran McMenamin

Creative team:
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Music: Grant Olding

No doubt you will have heard me rant on about modern-dress productions of Shakespeare before. If so, you won’t need to be reminded that I don’t generally approve, believing as I do that it’s a cheap and easy cop-out by a director not only wishing to ease up on his costume budget but who has scraped the bottom of the barrel for some production ideas and hasn’t really come up with anything, glossing over this fact by saying “it makes the play more relevant to today’s audience” (I wonder why nobody has ever set a Shakespeare play in the future? You know, by having the TARDIS appear on stage and a couple of lost time-travellers staggering out of it to start the action of the story rolling?). So my heart sank like the proverbial stone when we pitched up at the theatre to find that this was yet another modern-dress production. And then….some magic happened. The play started and it was about today. A small army of the dispossessed live in tents while bankers, commercially-successful artists, celebrities and politicians quaff champagne and nibble canap├ęs, pat each other on the back, and attend glamorous receptions in art galleries. A man over-reaches himself financially through lavish entertainments for people he thinks like him, goes to those friends for a short term loan and finds himself turned down for credit by all and sundry. Forced to admit that his “friends” are worthless parasites, he has to lay off his staff, sell up his home and sleep rough, while the dispossessed riot in the streets. Inside the barricades, the parties continue unabated as the bloodsuckers find fresh victims to suck dry.

Oh Shakespeare, you clever clever man, you really did have a TARDIS all the while, didn’t you? You travelled forward in time, saw what was happening and left us a clue to show you had been here. For once, the dark suits, modern hairstyles and contemporary settings became starkly relevant to the action as the story unfolded, and I found myself literally clinging onto the timbers of the raft as it swept downstream through the white waters of the first act, throwing me up against a sandbank signposted “INTERVAL” and leaving me gasping for breath and picking twigs out of my hair. The lights went down, I took a deep breath and plunged back in – and found no rapids but a slow, eddying pool of murky and slightly rank water in which I bobbed up and down for the next 45 minutes and barely moved.

For this is a strange chimera of a play. A note in the programme explains that:

“In 1623 the publisher of the first collection edition of Mr. Shakepeare’s Comedies, Tragedies and Histories was having trouble securing the rights to print Troilus and Cressida which was supposed to follow Romeo and Juliet in the “tragedies” section. The printers delayed as long as they could and then grabbed Timon of Athens to fill the gap. Apparently never polished into a final version, perhaps long forgotten, probably never performed, possibly never intended to be in the First Folio, this odd play [was] written by Shakespeare and his younger contemporary Thomas Middleton”
So what we have here is a botched committee job, only half formed, sent into the world before its time. And by god does it show. The first half of the play is electrifying, scarily relevant to early 21st century London and could have been written yesterday. The second half of the play descends rapidly into weary and tiresome speechifying that reminded me of the worst excesses of Beckett's Waiting for Godot – not that I have ever seen Waiting for Godot but this is what I imagine the worst excesses of it would be like. You know, one mad, shambling old tramp maundering on to himself, finding a horde of buried treasure and then killing himself. Rather than, as I found myself fervently hoping, taking back his place in society, shouting “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” and doing so in a variety of interesting and humiliating ways. Damn. Timon doesn’t even have the good grace to stick around to the end of the play, merely shambling off stage and topping himself. What a cop out. I felt like going to the box office and demanding half my money back.

The first half moves along at such a pace that it is hard to keep up with the clever, yet simple set changes. An enormous picture (El Greco, if anyone should care to remark that the play is set in Athens) is covered with lavish drop curtain which then rises to reveal that the picture has disappeared and that the frame is now the proscenium of a small stage, which then disappears and the picture frame becomes a window frame, through which can be glimpsed the shining towers of Canary Wharf or the Houses of Parliament (confusingly pinning the play’s location to London instead). A dining table set for 14 glides on and is serviced by an elegantly choreographed team of waters. A couple of elegant leather sofas cleverly mark out a location as the reception area of a posh-git hedge fund. Its all very spare, yet very elegant in a reductive 20teens way. Costumes are the usual blend of sharp city suits and elegant designer dresses (a style which would normally bring on a fit of the heebie jeebies for me but which is here entirely and frighteningly appropriate, for possibly the first time in my theatregoing experience).

And the cast, with one or two notable exceptions, is really good. Yet there remains the problem of the second half, which is a problem that cannot be overcome. It really is a play of two halves; one is fast-paced and exciting in a way that I have rarely experienced before (and extremely rarely in Shakespeare) and the other is a rambling disappointment. After a good half an hour of maundering, the ending feels rushed, tacked on and incomplete. If I had had to leave at the interval, I would have come away feeling cheated of the rest of the evening. As it is, I saw the second half and felt cheated of what could have been Shakespeare’s most exciting play had he ever got round to finishing it.

Highlighs from the Chicago 2009 Festival of Shakespeare production:

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