There’s a reason you have never seen a production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. It’s not his best play. It’s not even his, or rather, his alone, but probably a collaboration with Thomas Middleton. An awkward work that falls between tragedy and fable, it’s not surprising that it is seldom seen: huge cast, lots of set and costume changes, clunky dialogue, a lead character that hits mostly one note, and not much that happens in the play.
So why is the National doing it at all? Well, in true National style, they have cleverly staged it in a manner that turns it into an apocalyptic vision of bankers’ greed and youthful riots. As such, it’s well worth seeing, even if you have no particular interest in the rarity value of what is considered a ‘problem’ Shakespeare.
The story is simple: a rich man lavishes his wealth on his friends, only to find that when money runs out, they disappear. He curses them and the city and goes to live in a dump outside it. There he finds a mysterious pot of gold, experiences the generosity of a servant, a cynic and the rebel leader who is inciting the (young) mobs to violence. Word of his gold spreads, and he gets beaten up by the yobs and threatened by the rich. In the end he dies, and the rebel takes over the city, after the city fathers have handed over some of their own for slaughter.
Simon Russell Beale is a splendid actor, but the role of Timon (to rhyme with Simon) doesn’t give him much scope. The first half asks nothing but posturing of him, and the second, while it has some lengthy monologues where he curses money and most other things, is equally unvaried in tone. The rest of the cast of 20 consists of some fine actors, the most nuanced part being Timon’s put-upon PA who warns him of his impending downfall and then tries to rescue him, here played as Flavia, rather than the original Flavius, by Deborah Finlay. Hilton McRae is most entertaining as the churlish philosopher Apemantus, who is reviled by both the wealthy and the later misanthropic Timon.
Nicholas Hytner, as director of both the play and the National Theatre itself, has used the piece as a vehicle to make an incisive comment on today, depicting the extravagant excesses of the rich and the brooding, explosive anger of the young who see their future squandered by those in power. It’s a superb staging by him and designer Tim Haley, both in the modern costuming and the sets that place this squarely in the City of London. The backdrops and projections range from a champagne reception at an art gallery, with an interlude of real ballet, to the high-rise banking tower blocks. The Occupy movement that has rocked the heart of London is referenced in the tents that hover on the edges of this opulence. In the second half we are in an altogether more seedy part of town, a wasteland of concrete, where the flawed hero can disappear from life.
So far, so good, placing words of revolution in a gang of hoodies, making Timon’s false friends bankers with glass offices. The parallels with today are obvious. For Athens read London. Greed and revolt are the same today as they were in ancient Greece. The problem is that there is no drama to it all, and however slickly done, however many smart frocks, the first half is simply a pageant of people touting champagne glasses and simpering smiles, with Timon gushing about how he loves to be generous. The second half gears up a pace with the arrival of the hoodies, and we get to wonder whether Timon will hide his gold before they pounce on him and there is some good banter with Apemantus, but it remains a pageant of good and evil.
I couldn’t help wondering whether the thunderous applause from the audience was simply to signify how much they wished to see the rampant greed of today checked by a young leader with the fire and eloquence of Alcibiades in Timon of Athens.