mon 01/09/2014

Timon of Athens, National Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Timon of Athens, National Theatre

A consistently intelligent staging of a tricky play which offers no hope

Simon Russell Beale in Timon of AthensAll photos courtesy the National Theatre

As the much-loved Arthur Marshall so profoundly noted, Ibsen is “not a fun one”. One could, with as much truth, say the same about Shakespeare’s rarely staged Timon of Athens: its misanthropy, missing motivations and mercurial shifts in temper do not spell a fun night out to most. It is greatly to the credit of director Nicholas Hytner and his team, therefore, that the evening, if it doesn’t exactly fly by, is consistently engaging, thought-provoking and downright intelligent.

Hytner and his designer, Tim Hatley, have created a world that mirrors our own. Timon is officially “of Athens”, but here we begin at a private party celebrating the opening of “The Timon Room”, named for a museum’s generous benefactor. Yet even as the sycophants and money-men hover over the evening’s Maecenas, the room itself is presided over by an El Greco: Christ Turning the Moneylenders Out of the Temple.

Timon’s adoring “friends” praise him to each other as “the God of kindness”, the “noblest mind”, even as they segue into commending his wealth as the representation of that kindness and nobility.

The problem with the play (which Shakespeare, possibly collaborating with Middleton, seems to have abandoned, and which may never have been performed), is that Timon has no interior life – there is, as Gertrude Stein said (about Oakland, as it happens, but never mind), “no there there”. We have no idea where Timon’s money came from; we don’t know anything about his family, his private life, his ideas, thoughts, what drives his profligacy, his almost manic generosity. When, therefore, he loses all and rejects the world, we cannot feel that a great man has been destroyed: he is simply a vacuum.

Timon, unusually (and possibly merely because of its uncertain performing history), is not entitled by Shakespeare "The Tragedy of…", but only "The Life of...". For, truly, there can be no tragedy for a man with no interiority. What is it that makes Timon break when he is betrayed by his so-called friends, to go from manic giving to equally manic hatred for the world? Simon Russell Beale as Timon pulls all that is possible, and more, from this part – his gentle, almost tender verse-speaking draws every possibility out of the morass of curses that defines the second act of the play; his very physicality shifts between the giving and the rejecting.

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