With its lopsided structure, Timon of Athens is certainly Shakespeare’s strangest play, a dazzling first half followed by two acts of almost Beckettian simplicity, as a man wallows in muck and bemoans his lot. Could Beckett have been thinking of Timon when he wrote his abstract, fractured novella How It is, in which an unidentified narrator languishes in muddy darkness, his ordeal punctuated by occasional visits by shadowy strangers? Perhaps not, but Beckett’s “life life the other above in the light said to have been mine on and off no going back up there” could as easily be applied to Timon and Shakespeare seems to be creating a potent physical environment that encapsulates the protagonist’s spiritual dilemma in a way that resembles Beckett’s late stage imagery.
Timon is the ultimate frustrated romantic, beginning with a Candide-like belief in human nature and turning to soul-grinding bitterness and misanthropy when his expectations aren’t fulfilled. It requires a great actor to lift us above the doom and gloom and Simon Russell Beale is just the man to keep us entertained during Timon’s long recess in existential hell. Director Nicholas Hytner gives us a wittily incisive Athens, full of topical allusions in response to the, at times all too obvious, contemporary parallels with Shakespeare’s theme.
Entering the auditorium, we see a camp of protestors’ tents, which is soon replaced by a swish gallery, where a fat-cat reception is consecrating the newly-opened “Timon Room” in champagne, while El Greco’s Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple looks knowingly on. It’s a world instantly recognizable; a vast window gives glimpses of HSBC’s logo and the Palace of Westmister and Made in Chelsea youths guffaw into their bubbles. Men in suits pursue a life of greed, extravagance and selfishness and gangs of youths stalk the streets in masks, threatening to overturn the status quo.
Timon is a man who flings his money around, bestowing gifts on parasites until his coffers are empty and no-one will repay his bounty. Hytner spreads a little wealth around himself by aptly casting women in some of the male roles (most notably the excellent Deborah Findlay as the faithful steward re-named Flavia), to counter-balance and enliven a dramatis personae even more male-dominated than most of Shakespeare’s plays.
Russell Beale is predictably brilliant and there are many fine supporting performances, among them Hilton McRae’s dour Apemantus, the philosopher whose cynicism is soon overtaken by Timon’s as, like Coriolanus, he turns his back on his fellow men to seek “a world elsewhere.” And a grim one it is, a concrete and cardboard city where gold bullion lies inexplicably concealed in drains and rotting food is the only sustenance.
It’s not the first production of Timon of Athens in which the second half doesn’t quite live up to what’s gone before and, for all the brilliance, Hytner misses something of the grandeur of Timon’s tragedy. He seeks to fill Shakespeare’s void by swelling Alcibiades’ entourage to a crowd but there’s no disguising the fact that the latter part of the play is largely a series of exchanges between two or three characters with very little action.
Nevertheless, this is a great evening that sheds light on an under-performed classic, set to reach new audiences when it’s beamed around the world to cinemas as part of National Theatre Live in the autumn.