Timon of Athens was Marx’s favorite Shakespeare play and if he were alive now in this time of Bernie Madoffs, Jamie Dimons, and Jack Abramoffs, he would love the recent production of this play.
Marx stated of the play: “Since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and confuses all things, it is the general confounding and confusing of all things—the world turned upside-down—the confounding and confusing of all natural and human qualities.”
The play with its focus on the “1%”/ Fortune 500 CEO descending even below the ranks of his own servants is a vicious fantasy of economic reversal, of “the world turned upside-down.” The National Theatre’s production of Timon of Athens (part of both the 2012 World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival) is still a frustratingly static and emotionally cold play, but Nicholas Hytner’s highly topical and occasional retelling makes it immediately accessible and possibly Shakespeare’s most relevant play for our current economic crisis. It becomes the twisted economic fairytale for our times.
In Shakespeare and Middleton’s play, a wealthy Athenian gives away all his wealth impressing his friends. When his debt collectors come calling, no friends will return the favor and help Timon out. He flees Athens and lives in the wild, where he comes across hidden gold. His loyal steward and a cynical philosopher, both of whom had attempted to warn him to spend his money more wisely, visit Timon but he dismisses them. He gives money to the banished soldier Alcibiades to destroy Athens and commits suicide. The play is difficult and opaque, not quite a tragedy, possibly a satire, but feels unfinished and rough, but this modern production gives it a post-Brechtian sensibility.
Simon Russell Beale is superb as Timon, a rotund father/gift-giver who likes to give all. He plays Timon ambiguously motivated, either naïve or so genuinely desperate for love that he might know of his friends’ deception, but turns a blind eye. His friends, likewise, seem to be genuinely afraid that he might cut off his favors at any moment, hinting at some darker choleric temperament we do not see until his revenge feast. While I thought Beale was fantastic and almost made this bizarre character sympathetic, I did have a bit of his issue in his shift from posh to cockney accent once he becomes a homeless madman. But even at his nadir, he remains an enigma and Beale plays this overwrought character with nuance, never veering into fully insane misanthrope. (*Also, on a personal note, Beale’s short stature, thick build, and grey hair all resembled my nice and bumbling stepfather so much that I had to feel a bit sorry for him no matter what. **Also, you may see Beale as Falstaff in the new BBC “Hollow Crown” series)
Tom Robertson offers some much needed comic relief as the prodigal son turned vapid playboy Ventidius. Ciaran McMenamin is a calculating Alcibiades, and Hilton McRae is a standout as the cynical Apemantus. Deborah Findlay adds humanity to the play as the doggedly loyal and pragmatic head steward Flavia.
The setting and light design perfectly created the immediacy of this particular production. Before the play begins, tents are scattered about the stage and some young folks seem to loiter in the background. As Timon sends his staff to reclaim his favors and money from former friends, we see in the windows behind their cushy high-rise offices the logos of international banks such as HSBC. When Timon must leave Athens, we see his staff with a stack of cardboard boxes. So, in a few bold choices, we have the Occupy movement, the international banking scandal, and the foreclosure crisis all represented as we see on the nightly news. Alcibiades is played by Irish actor Ciaran McMenamin, adding another layer of current political relevance. When Alcibiades, the rebel leader, decides to join instead of destroy Athens in a payoff/media opportunity, we see a cynical fantasy of IRA tensions being allayed through money and fame.
This does not mean that all settings are so time-sensitive. In the first scene, for example, wealthy characters arrived at a museum gallery opening with a monumental detail from the National Gallery’s Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple by El Greco. As Timon is likened to Christ throughout the play, this particular painting as Christ cleanses the Temple of Solomon from opportunistic moneylenders and merchants ironically reinforces Timon as self-sacrificing, generous, and righteous about money.
The most important setting, however, is the dining table. The table slowly rotates in the dining scenes and the lush table demonstrates the superficial excess of everything in Timon’s life. This is a site of gluttony and excess in opposition to Apemantus’ ascetic gnawing on root vegetables. The table is where Timon acts as generous father and his guests as flattering children, and where he plays forgiving and self-sacrificing Christ to the Judas-like betrayals and Peter-like denials of his friends. The dining table is the location of the figurative devouring of Timon and Timon’s revenge feast (here, covered platters of shit, which Timon throws at his guests). The sense of community and family created by communal feasting is the central activity and trope of the play, and is staged to great effect in this production.
After the play, I rode the train back to my ‘home’ in Streatham. A father and teenaged son were sitting across the aisle from me and having a frank discussion (which I tried to not eavesdrop on) as they headed home. While I didn’t catch most of their conversation, I did hear the son tell his father: “I think the problem is that people treat things like they are people, and treat people as though they were less than things.” They had not been at the play, but the son beautifully captured both the moral of this decidedly timeless fable better than my review above.
** This production will be shown on movie screens November 1 and you can check for movie theatres here. Hopefully, the National Theatre will also release a DVD. **