TIMON OF ATHENS
DIRECTOR: Nicholas Hytner
CAST: Simon Russell Beale, Deborah Findley (Flavia), Ciaran McMenamin, Hilton McRae, Paul Bentall
RUNNING TIME: 196 minutes
CONSPICUOUS consumption, debt and ruin are explored in this strange Shakespeare play which easily makes the transition to modern times.
The initial short feature about the production process of this rarely performed Shakespeare tragedy is informative and necessary for context. This play is rarely performed because it is somewhat problematic in structure and seems unfinished.
Director Nicholas Hytner is also interviewed in a short insert between the two acts, explaining that he didn’t attend the final performance of this play as he was at the opening of the next one to be broadcast on NT (National Theatre) Live.
Timon of Athens (Beale, pictured) is a wealthy Athenian who throws a lavish banquet to celebrate the naming of a museum wing after himself.
He rescues a friend from the debtor’s jail and gives money to a senator to allow his servant to marry the senator’s daughter, but things start going pear-shaped after the big party. Timon’s debts finally catch up with him – it turns out he has spent everything and when he tries to borrow money from his so-called friends he learns just how fickle fortune can be.
The sumptuous banquet at which he lavishes gifts on all and sundry is in sharp contrast to the second banquet, at which he serves up only vengeful curses and what looks suspiciously like excrement.
The stark second act is also contrary to the busy storyline of the first in that it is mostly Timon cursing his fate and anyone who comes into contact with him in the litter-strewn wasteland to which he confines himself.
Timon expresses his relationships in monetary terms, not emotional. He lavishes his possessions and money on the sycophants who surround him, even giving away the gifts he receives from various characters. While he starts off as a seemingly jolly character, it is a forced happiness founded in insecurity, which quickly turns to misanthropy when he is abandoned by his fairweather friends.
Trading insults and curses with Apemantus (McRae) – the only person in the first half who didn’t ask anything of him and prophesied that things were going to turn bad – in the second act he is as animated as you will see the depressed Timon at this point, then he dies off stage.
Beale rails well and cuts a lonely hobo figure, pushing his trolley through the debris of others’ lives.
In the second half of the play a character named Alcibiades (McMenamin) puts in an appearance as a malcontent wanting to sack Athens, which Timon bankrolls from a hidden vault of gold he discovers.
Alcibiades leads a revolution of sorts, but is eventually co-opted into the governing structure in a quick succession of scenes and then it all ends.
Like I said, problematic. But, Hytner’s staging creates an immediacy which the not-so- poetic (when compared to Shakespeare’s other tragedies) prose doesn’t.
He has moved the setting of the play to modern London, mired in financial turmoil, and it finds a perfect home in the cynicism of our times.
While the wealthy throw ever more lavish parties inside, outside the poor grow ever more desperate and it did not take much imagination to find the modern imagery to portray this.
The way all the characters worship money and like Timon only because he is giving it to them is a perfect mirror for the celebrity/credit worshippers of our time.
Even when the words sometimes leave you a bit befuddled, the imagery is hard to run away from.
If you liked … Derek Jacobi in King Lear on NT Live … you will like this.