Timon of Athens, Shakespeare’s most difficult (and unread) play, is now on at the Olivier Theatre at The National. It stars Simon Russell Beale as Timon, who spends beyond his means and ends up in ruin, rejected and spurned by his former friends. Deborah Findlay is Flavia, Hilton McRae the railing philosopher Apemantus, and Ciaran McMenamin as Alcibiades. Nicholas Hytner directs a substantially adapted play, and Tim Hatley designs.
“Nobody’s ever read Timon of Athens. Even Shakespeare didn’t read Timon of Athens — and he wrote it,” said Fiona Mountford’s lecturer at university, quoted on The Evening Standard.
The embodiment of conspicuous consumption
What “better time”, said Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph, to revive this play, as “the world reels under a mountain of debt?” Hytner “hurls Timon into the 21st century and finds it lands there almost perfectly.” The play is “lethally incisive, often viciously funny.” The scene is modern – there’s an “Occupy-style tent-city” for Alcibiades’ rebel hordes; inside “all is opulent.” Timon embodies “conspicuous consumption.” This is the “world of Damien Hirst and his exorbitant art.” Russell Beale is unmissable, brilliant in the early parts, then “a merchant of sardonic spleen” in the latter. The play asks the question: “If we can only live in the kind of dog-eat-dog world he describes then shouldn’t we, like him, quit it?”
A problematic, but trenchant, play
Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times said it would be “impossible” to review the play without noting its contemporary resonances. It begins with Timon opening “The Timon Room” in a gallery, “fawned over” by the great and good. Sure, it’s a “problematic” play, and was “almost certainly co-written with Thomas Middleton”, but Hytner makes it “a trenchant play for today.”
Russell Beale is excellent
Paul Taylor in The Independent said it was “bold, incisive,” with the production allowing us to “feel how disaster brews and is implicit in the protagonist’s apparent heyday.” Russell Beale’s performance has “searching psychological penetration.” As he hobbles away, he “curses like a Lear who has been blocked from feeling pity and yet who seems to know, at some terribly painful level, that part of the problem comes from an emotional inadequacy within himself.”
It zings out across the centuries
“The lines zing out across the centuries,” said Fiona Mountford in The Evening Standard: “repeated words such as ‘lend’, ‘borrow’ and ‘creditors’”. Every detail has been “meticulously worked out” – Timon and his followers carry Fashion Week brochures, whilst Apemantus resembles Christopher Hitchens. “This is, as one academic described it, ‘a tragedy with not a glimmer of catharsis in sight’, but as presented here it’s starkly pure and powerful. Timon of Athens, the whole of Greece: that narrative arc keeps cresting forward.”
Shakespeare had a TARDIS
Russell’s Theatre Reviews blog said that he didn’t normally approve of “modern-dress productions”, and so his “heart sank like the proverbial stone” when this started. But then – “some magic happened.” It’s as if Shakespeare had a TARDIS, ”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 making of Timon of Athens
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