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
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.
Subscribe to theartsdesk.com
Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £2.95 per month or £25 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.
To take an annual subscription now simply click here.
And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?
Revival of Sean O’Casey’s modern classic is relevant, but a bit sombre
The Tommy Steele musical gets a triumphant, banjo-rehabilitating refresh
Does the continuing story of JK Rowling's witches and wizards work its magic onstage?
A classic musical reborn for a contemporary audience
Neil LaBute's masochistic odyssey is sporadically thought-provoking
Off Broadway transfer illuminates Sondheim's fairy tales anew
Devised play about a film director's obsession almost loses the plot
A musical take on pulp noir is frustratingly uneven
An utterly compelling revival of Brian Friel's 'Faith Healer' leads theartsdesk's stage tips
Generation-bridging joy with the return of the mobster musical pastiche
Revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 classic is brilliantly acted and utterly compelling
The Northern Irish stage craftsman celebrated for Dancing at Lughnasa and Faith Healer