Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Timon of Athens (National Theatre)

In the programme notes for Nicholas Hytner's modern-dress production of Timon of Athens at the National Theatre, Shakespearean scholar Peter Holland reveals that the little-performed play only just escaped disappearing altogether.

Shoehorned into the First Folio (1623) at the last moment to plug a gap, the play was unfinished, probably never performed and believed to have been co-written with Thomas Middleton.

So if it only just made it onto the ark, is it worth a revival in 2012?

Simon Russell Beale plays the title character, an Athenian noble renowned for his generosity. However, when he realises too late that he's mortgaged up to the hilt and his philanthropy is founded on crippling debt, his friends soon scatter.

The production stops just short of overcooking the reflections of the current financial situation. It opens with Athenian protesters as an Occupy camp, before we see Timon splashing his benevolence by sponsoring a room at a gallery - dominated, tellingly, by a painting of Christ driving the money-lenders from the temple.

His parties for poets, painters, jewellers and actors conjure up images of glittering gatherings at Chequers. Later, when it's all going tits-up for Timon, his aide visits the offices of Lucullus Capital - with a picture-window view of Canary Wharf - in a vain effort to extend his credit. 
The first half of the play ends with him turning his back on Athens and what he sees as hateful humanity, and sadly there isn't much in the second half to match the fulminating invective with which he curses Athens in particular and mankind in general.

In fact, the rest of the play gets a bit repetitive as Timon, holed up in a derelict building (a cave in the original) with just his shopping trolley full of junk, finds his solitude shattered after he uncovers a stash of gold.

In rapid succession he gets turned over by bandits; hurls a bit more ugly abuse at the rebel Alcibiades and two women; has an mutual insult-a-thon with the cynical philosopher Apemantus; and rebuffs the urgings of the senators and his steward/PA Flavia for him to return to the city (with his stash).

Probably reflecting its unfinished status, the play doesn't offer any kind of tragic catharsis, as Timon's ambigious death is reported after the event by Alcibiades and the senators, who have reached a political compromise that will largely preserve the status quo.

Simon Russell Beale gives a suitably weighty performance as Timon, eager to flaunt his benefaction in the first half and then plumbing the depths of roaring misanthropy when he realises the true nature of the 'friendship' in which he'd felt himself so rich earlier.

The standout performances from the rest of the cast are from Hilton MacRae as the sour-faced Apemantus and Tom Robertson as Ventidius, a Hooray Henry who is bailed out of prison by Timon but then drops his benefactor like a hot potato once the tables are turned.

The NT has done the best it could with the patched-up text - around 250 lines were cut or amended and small portions transplanted from other Shakespeare plays - and Tim Hatley's design is simple but effective. 

And thanks to the NT's excellent Travelex £12 scheme, you can take a punt on a decent seat in the Olivier without breaking the bank yourself. 

However, if you're pressed for time you could probably hop off at half time - sorry, the interval - with a good grasp of the play's message and Timon's thundering curses rattling in your ears.  

(There'll also be a global National Theatre Live cinema broadcast of the play on 1 November 2012)

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