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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Timon Of Athens
Olivier Theatre Summer-Autumn  2012

How does a director take on what is arguably Shakespeare's most difficult play? One solution is to completely redefine it, changing its tone and message, and hope that this new vision works. 

That's what Nicholas Hytner seems to have done with Timon Of Athens. I don't think his gamble succeeds (You may), but I understand and respect the attempt. 

We meet Timon as the richest man in town, patron of the arts and almost compulsively generous to friend and beggar alike. Then he goes broke, and nobody wants to know him. Outraged and probably driven mad by this ingratitude, he becomes a desert hermit, cursing mankind with some of the most violent and disturbing imagery Shakespeare ever wrote:

                                      To general filths
Convert o' th' instant, green virginity.
Do it in your parents' eyes . . . . Son of sixteen,
Pluck the lin'd crutch from thy old limping sire,
With it beat out his brains! . . . Itches, blains,
Sow in all th' Athenian bosoms, and their crop
Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath . . . .

And that's essentially it. There's no arc to Timon's life, no redemption or triumph over his madness. He loves everyone, then he hates everyone, then he dies. 

The character, and the play, exist in extremes, with no middle ground and not even much of a transition between them, and the challenge for the very rare director who takes this play on is to make it all hang together and have any dramatic point. 

Nicholas Hytner does it by tempering one of the extremes, and thus changing the whole play. 

In this modern dress production Timon doesn't become a mad hermit but a rough-sleeping urban tramp, wheeling his possessions around in a supermarket trolley, scrounging in the rubbish for KFC buckets and muttering. Far from approaching a kind of mad majesty in his violent hatred, he is impotent and pitiable, the sort you'd cross the street to avoid. 

The same sort of domestication and de-fanging of the play turns the invading army Timon cheers on and encourages to destroy Athens into a mob of urban rioters and looters, and Hytner stages the play's final scene to underline the point that Timon's life and death have affected nothing. 

So a play about the extremes of philanthropy and misanthropy, and possibly about how (like love and hate) they are very closely related, is turned into a play about how Timon is essentially right in his contempt for mankind but his insight and anger are of no value to him or anyone. 

You may find that cynical vision satisfying, but I miss the raw power of Timon's rage and the sense of some kind of tragic stature.

I defer to few in my admiration for Simon Russell Beale as an actor, and he certainly carries the first third of the play – the happy Timon – with ease and grace. But, whether it's a directorial choice or a limitation in the actor, he never takes the angry Timon to the heights of frightening power that Shakespeare surely wanted. 

He delivers the speech I quoted earlier (which actually goes on in the same vein for about five times that length) in pain rather than anger, blunting its horrors and arousing pity rather than fear, and through the rest of the play his curses carry little power. (I repeat that that may indeed be the point he wants to make – that Timon is impotent and irrelevant – but that actor and director have to fight the play to make it say that.) 

The director's updating of the play extends to changing the gender of a few secondary characters, most notably in casting Deborah Findlay in the male role of Timon's one loyal servant. Findlay brings a touching warmth to the role, but also contributes to the cutting away of any tragic quality. 

(Forgive the seeming sexism, but in terms of audience response, it's believable that the warm, caring woman Findlay plays could feel pity for a tramp, while a businesslike male character's loyalty would signal something of stature in Timon.) 

Hilton McRae isn't given the opportunity to do much with the cynic Apemantus and Ciaran McMenamin even less as the invading general Alcibiades in this domesticated version of the play.

I wouldn't recommend even a brilliant Timon Of Athens as anyone's first experience of Shakespeare. But it is done so rarely that even a play-warping production such as this one is worthy of a Shakespeare veteran's attention.

Gerald Berkowitz


Review - Timon of Athens - National Theatre 2012 
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