Timon of Athens, National Theatre, review, July 2012
18th July 2012
Timon of Athens
National’s Olivier Theatre
As the world reels under a mountain of debt, while anger, blame and recrimination spread like a contagion, what better time to revive Timon of Athens, a play about a rash, too-trusting man of means who spends, spends, spends his way to sudden ruin, winding up both bankrupt and broken in spirit, hating the society he once showered with riches?
Nicholas Hytner has seized the cynical, disillusioned day. He hurls Timon into the 21st century and finds it lands there almost perfectly. Oddly neglected, Shakespeare’s lethally incisive, often viciously funny portrait of mankind in thrall to Mammon – assisted, it’s suspected, by the scabrous input of Thomas Middleton – here seems to be freshly minted for the Credit Crunch generation.
The nominal setting is ancient Athens but Hytner frames the action so that it might as well be taking place down the road, under our noses. Outside – a mischievous, interpolated set-up scene shows us – there’s an Occupy-style tent-city whose inhabitants are dispossessed and discontented – an inspired take, it emerges, on the rebel Alcibiades and his mob. Within, all is opulent, gleaming, palatial. Simon Russell Beale’s smart, besuited Timon basks in sycophantic adulation as he opens a new gallery-wing, the Timon Room. This beaming, self-effacing benefactor is the only name on everyone’s lips. “Timon”, they all rhubarb, chinking champagne glasses, swooning at the conspicuous consumption he embodies.
Hytner and his designer Tim Hatley make sharp, stinging points. We are manifestly in a world of Damien Hirst and his exorbitant art, of braying bankers and their unfeasible bonuses, of empty talk, opportunistic air-kissing, rampant insincerity; all that’s missing is an Olympics logo to ram the topical message home. Yet this thrust is neither gimmicky or glib.
Hytner’s invention doesn’t let up when Timon’s credit runs dry and his so-called friends proffer feeble excuses for not coughing up – nor does his insight. This isn’t a gaudy star-vehicle that flatters half-decent material but an evening that stealthily reveals Timon as an invaluable inquiry into human nature and money. You can see why it fascinated Marx, and can speculate as to why it wasn’t performed in its time: it feels as radical as it is despairing.
Ably supported by a company that lends a powerful sense of predatory populousness where required, and key notes of plaintive exasperation in the case of Deborah Findlay’s fretful “PA” Flavia and Hilton McRae’s railing cynic Apemantus, Russell Beale adds yet another performance to his roll-call of must-see turns. He applies his knack for engaging avuncularity brilliantly in the early scenes, when Timon, generous to a fault, is almost nondescript in his eagerness to please. Then he displays all his gilded wares as a merchant of sardonic spleen as Timon’s mood takes a sudden shift to the bilious and the language becomes richly heaped with vitriolic invention. One famous unleashing of abuse has been specially garlanded by Hytner so that it’s silver platters of steaming turds not water that Timon delivers as a vengeful banquet for his faithless acolytes. Russell Beale makes the scene shocking in its misanthropic rage, but steeps it beautifully in choking emotion too.
His Timon ends up a pathetic cardboard citizen in a dirty hobo outfit, pushing a supermarket trolley, scavenging among the urban debris, himself preyed upon by the still-grasping hordes. His clear-eyed rejection of everyone around him, at once the flipside of his earlier bonhomie and the logical consequence of his lonely absolutism, brings one to the abyss of an unanswerable question. If we can only live in the kind of dog-eat-dog world he describes then shouldn’t we, like him, quit it?
First published in the Daily Telegraph, 18 July 2012.