Timon of Athens
William Shakespeare (and Thomas Middleton)
Directed by Nicholas Hynter
National Theatre, London
22 September 2012, matinee
- Simon Russell Beale – Timon
Paul Bentall – Lucullus
Martin Chamberlain – Varro
Jason Cheater – Titus, thief
Stavros Demetraki – Lucilius
Alfie Enoch – Philotus
Jo Dockery – Phyrnia
Paul Dodds – Hortanius, thief
Lynette Edwards – Sempronia
Craig Els – Caphis, thief
Deborah Findlay – Flavia
Cindy Jourdain – Livia
Penny Layden – painter
Olivia Llewellyn – Flaminia, Timandra
Ciaran McMenamin – an actor, Alcibades
Hilton McRae – Apemantus
Nick Sampson – Poet
- Tim Samuels – Servilius
Michael Sheldon – Isidore
Ross Walton – Lepidus, Hostilius
Charlie Blackwood – ensemble
Matt Jessup – ensemble
- + seven dancers
Let’s start with the poster / flyer / programme cover. This is NOT a scene from the play, but they have engaged lookalikes to surround Simon Russell Beale as Timon of Athens: Madonna, Tony Blair, David Beckham and Boris Johnston. No mention of this, but it’s been carefully set up. It sets out the stall for a production set in the City of london.
An old back-seat-of-the car time-passer used to be “name the fifty states of the USA”. Even geography graduates stalled at forty-eight or forty-nine. The one they always missed was Idaho. If you think of the USA as a jigsaw, Idaho tucks itself between West Coast states and the Rocky Mountains states. Well, Timon of Athens is the Idaho of the Shakespeare canon. The one you can never remember when asked to name all the plays. It’s not been done often. Major productions date from 1965, 1980 and 1999, so at reasonably consistent intervals. The programme notes that it was an afterthought for the First Folio, hastily added to replace Troilus & Cressida, the other one I never remember (or Iowa) when they had trouble with rights. It adds ‘probably never performed.’
Recent research indicates that Thomas Middleton collaborated and wrote sections of it. The Guardian review by Paul Mason described it as ‘effectively a Jacobean city comedy by Thomas Middleton wrapped in a character study by Shakespeare.’ i.e. Middleton wrote the most engaging bits, and Shakespeare wrote the rants by Timon? Bob Dylan produced Saved and Dylan and the Dead; The Rolling Stones produced Their Satanic Majesties Request; much of Let It Be, by The Beatles, is poor. And Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens. And Timon of Athens is the Dylan (1973) or Beatles Live At The Hollywood Bowl then: the collection of outtakes or live stuff never thought worthy of release at the time.
Timon at the banquet with sycophants
The reviews for this production were ecstatic, though five stars from The Independent loses some meaning when you see The Independent was one of this production’s sponsors. I’d say Simon Russel Beale’s performance, five star. Tim Hatley’s design, five star. Nicholas Hyndeley’s direction four star. The rest of the cast? Three at best, not that there is any character for them to inhabit. William Shakespeare’s writing and plot? Nul pointes.
Outside the Timon Room. Timon has just been given a painting by The Artist. Flavia (PA) in red.
The play is intrinsically weak. Peter Holland’s programme notes say “Timon of Athens is one of the most brilliantly experimental dramas of its age.”
No. No, it really isn’t. The play’s huge flaw is that there is just one character, who is one-dimensional in the first half. Who then turns 360 degrees to become just as one dimensional in the second half, from the opposite point of view. There are no other interesting characters. Timon has no parents, friends, lovers, children, relatives or close associates. He doesn’t even have enemies, just hangers on who desert him. The play was titled The Life of Tymon of Athens in the First Folio. Exactly right. A Tragedy needs something before the fall.
There is no interaction. In the first half, Timon is Elton John distributing largesse to all and sundry; in the second he has lost all his wealth and he is Misanthropus, hating mankind. Simon Russell Beale looks and sounds great … silver locked coiffeured hair and immaculate suit in part one; stubble as a down-and-out living from a supermarket trolley in part two. The only other whiffs of characterisation come from Apemanthus, the disapproving philosopher (Hilton McRae) and Timon’s steward Flavius, here transformed into Flavia, his PA (Deborah Findley). Even they don’t have a lot to hang onto, and both are there to warn of downfall. The rest of the cast are sketched stereotypes. Well-played sketched stereotypes (this is the National) but that’s it.
This production sucked interest out of the creaking original by setting it in 2012 London’s financial world and drawing crafty parallels. I particularly liked the first act, outside “The Timon Room” in an art gallery. Benefactor territory: The Sainsbury Wing, The Saatchi Gallery, The Getty Center, The Gulbenkian Museum. Yes, that’s what you do when government has given you an easy ride to make a fortune: commemorate yourself for posterity with your own generosity. We never lose the sight of the fact that we’re in with the banking classes, which is why they drop Timon as soon as it suits them. Hating investment bankers is a given in 2012. Who doesn’t?
The set design is the star, making full use of the Olivier Theatre’s large revolving stage. The set adds to this with views on the inner stage (also used for the dancers) of London skylines and streets. The trouble with the plot is that the first half sees a constantly shifting set with amusing references … HSBC bank outside the window, a meeting with Lucculus is at the offices of Lucullus Capital. The downside is that we get accustomed to the constant and rich scene changes, then in part two we’re stuck in the same blasted industrial wasteland for fifty minutes or so.
They missed opportunities too. Reviews mention it’s very funny. But to me the only vaguely comic roles are The Poet and The Artist working as a duo. The Artist gets an Estuary accent, but I would have done the full Tracey Emin with her. The use of names like The Jeweller, The Artist, The Poet, The Actor, The Philosopher (who does have a name) should have indicated a certain distance from real life. There are characters confusingly called Lucculus and Lucilius too. It is all said to be a sign that the play was either unfinished, or the text is only a draft.
The artist, Timon, The poet: From the second part
On accents, if you have a Northern Irish accent, the National Theatre and RSC can keep you in constant work for life in aggressive roles. Alcibiades, the rebel leader, gets the full Ulster this time. Can the NT / RSC break this easy, tired, cliché? It’s gone beyond irritating.
Another missed opportunity was the whores. In the second half, Timon wants to import venereal disease into Athens. In 1605, this was a major theme. Syphilis was rife and a constant threat. It’s thrown away. Timon harangues two drabby female protestors. You conclude that he’s insulting a pair of nice protesting students. To achieve Timon’s true goal, you need the equivalent of Shakespearean camp followers. Whores. AIDS is the exact modern equivalent of the plague of syphilis. I’d have cast an African female prostitute and a male prostitute, and gone to town on the costumes. The industrial wasteland period needed a little uplift. I suspect that would be a non-PC step too far. The dancers at the banquet early on did a tasteful ballet, and beautifully. I can’t help thinking that pole dancers might have fitted the bankers better.
If they had wanted to REALLY go for the 2012 financial situation, they could have located Timon of Athens in modern-day Athens. At the root of Greece’s economic problem are years of the government buying popularity and therefore votes with generous pension, social security and retirement benefits which they had no money to pay for. And then they have the street protests, just as here. Timon as Pappandreou? Greek friends would add that being sold loads of military equipment which they didn’t need from Germany and France contributed.
One change for the better is that when Timon serves his enemies a banquet, the dishes of stones are dishes of faeces.
A nice touch at the end is how Alicibiades gets pulled into the system as the new leader (with the same old officials). I’ve seen the same done with Fortinbras in Hamlet and Richmond in Richard III … yes, it’s another excellent idea that is getting re-used. But it reflects reality too well to miss.
The protestors are important, but look like clean young actors waving sticks.They just don’t have the real threat of violence. A cast of around thirty is a wonderful thing to see, as in the National Theatre’s Comedy of Errors. This provincial can’t help thinking, what about having a cast of twenty, fewer set changes, and finance a play or three outside London?
In the end, I don’t like the play. If I’d missed this production, good as it was, it would not have been a great loss. I’m surprised 19th century actor managers never took it up, because it is a solo piece. And Simon Russell Beale does it brilliantly.
One advantage Bath and Salisbury have over the National Theatre (physically the finest theatrical space of all) is that the audience don’t text, whether this is due to age and infirmity or natural courtesy, I don’t know. The family of six in front of us had dad and daughter with their phone screens glowing bright in our eyes right through the first part. I guess they needed to know whether anyone was texting or to be able to text out “We R at Tyson of Athin. Bit boring. Where RU?” At dance theatre it gets epidemic, as with a teenage audience you can have fifty glowing screens in the darkness, or what should be darkness. Fortunately the lady next to us in the Olivier Theatre asked daughter to turn it off before the start of part two, and dad did too. They need to change the mobile phone bit to say “and that doesn’t mean silent mode either. Screens distract people behind you.”
GRATUITOUS SMOKING NOTE
At least one character lights up. Not necessary, and also smoking is so uncool in 2012 that it doesn’t fit. I heard a doctor on the radio saying that when he gets patients with a rotting septum in his surgery, his first question is ‘And which bank do you work for?’ Cocaine certainly did appalling damage to rock music but you didn’t have to listen to it. When it moved to investment bankers, the damage hit us all. A banking type/ sycophant snorting coke in the background would have fitted the opulent setting better.