Saturday 4 August 2012

Theatre review: Timon of Athens (National Theatre)

Simon Russell Beale appears to be warming up for his upcoming turn as Lear (whenever that eventually materialises) with another powerful man cast out into the wilderness after his illusions are shattered, Shakespeare and Middleton's Timon of Athens. Timon is the best-loved man in Athens, thanks to his limitless generosity which is easily taken advantage of - he may as well be a lottery with a guaranteed win, as everyone knows that giving him a small gift will see him repay it with something seven times the value, so his unscrupulous friends do this often. When it turns out Timon's apparent wealth is actually mortgaged to the hilt and the debt collectors arrive, he assumes his friends will return his generosity but is wide of the mark. He goes from the man who loves everyone to the greatest misanthrope alive, living in the woods (the docks, in this modern-dress production) and avoiding human company, but even there he can't escape gold and the power it has over people.

Director Nicholas Hytner has obviously jumped at the opportunity to make a comment on current affairs through a play that shows reckless spending based on debt having disastrous results, and the fact that the story takes place in Greece, current poster-child for economic collapse, must have seemed an extra gift. I can't help feeling he's got a bit carried away with the idea of the play's relevance though and has laid it on with a trowel. The symbolism is heavy-handed from the start, Timon endowing a gallery wing that features a huge painting of Jesus driving the money-lenders from the temple. The lack of subtlety extends to some of the performances - if anyone didn't figure out from the first seven or eight times Tom Robertson's Ventidius sniffed and rubbed his gums exactly where Timon's money was going, they were never going to get it.

SRB doesn't disappoint although this isn't one of his more inspired performances either; he sparks well with Hilton McRae as the cynical philosopher Apemantus, and their exchange of insults is a highlight. A couple of the roles have been gender-reversed, meaning Timon's steward is now Flavia, Deborah Findlay moving as the ever-loyal servant, but her vocal delivery oddly one-note. Meanwhile Alfie Enoch still needs to calm down a bit with the arm gestures. Timon of Athens is considered to be an abandoned work-in-progress (no record exists of it actually making it onto a stage in Shakespeare's lifetime) which is most apparent in the subplot of Ciarán McMenamin’s Alcibiades attacking the city. Despite some textual changes made by the production this unfinished nature is still very apparent, if anything more so in the confusion of protesters and rioters that Hytner has thrown into the mix in a further attempt at topicality.

This isn't a bad production by any stretch, in fact I took my mum for her birthday treat and she loved the show so that's the main thing. I did find it a bit lacking in creative spark though, probably made even more obvious by the fact that the last show I saw was the inspired Curious Incident in the same building. There's no question that certain elements of the story have contemporary relevance but for one thing I think the audience can be trusted to spot that without being force-fed; for another, it doesn't mean that every single element of the play will have a modern-day parallel, and trying to shoehorn relevance into everything seems to have distracted the director at times.

Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton is booking in repertory until the 31st of October at the National Theatre's Olivier, and screening live to cinemas on the 1st of November.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

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