By William Shakespeare
Directed by Adrian Jackson
Company: Cardboard Citizens
Venue: The Shakespeare Centre
Date: Thursday 26th October 2006
This was the best management seminar we’ve ever attended! Not that we actually expected to be attending a management seminar, but that’s the framework Cardboard Citizens were using to present this play, one of the many ‘difficult’ ones in the Shakespeare canon. Great performances, good production, interesting if messy staging.
It was held in the Shakespeare Centre, where we’ve been before for the Winter School. On arriving, we were given name tags, which included our occupation – I put housewife. We were also asked to put a coloured spot on our tags to show our rough annual income. I went for the yellow blob – one of the poorest in society – but there were plenty of other colours on display. (If I went again, I’d probably make up some fantastic career and opt for bags of money.)
The audience accumulated in the Woolfson Room, and a number of the actors mingled with us, introducing themselves, passing out business cards, and as it turned out, searching for a mole, an audience member who was to play a part in the performance. Then we had the ‘induction’. This was presented as a motivational training course to inspire us to change our lives. All the actors doing this part were in smart business suits, and there was a flipchart with some prepared sheets. We were first asked “Who is the most powerful person in this room?”, and most of the responses were shouted out by the actors, by the sound of it. They ended up with Will Shakespeare as the definitive answer – the greatest ever management guru. Various plays were put forward as examples. The two best I remember were “Comedy of Errors – an example of identity theft in the commercial environment”, and “Hamlet – prioritising your ‘to do’ list”. Brilliantly done, very tongue-in-cheek.
After this, there was some motivational haranguing, spliced together with clips from the play (Timon), and then we’re exhorted to change our lives – if you don’t like where you are, go somewhere else. This was our cue to move through into the Queen Elizabeth Hall for the main action of the play. Mind you, it took several increasingly direct nudges to get us to go. Anyone would have thought we were an unadventurous bunch. Unadventurous and slow!
Once seated (I’ll spare us the long trek in between), more motivational speakers took over while a second induction course was held, mainly for the press. The speakers caught the style very well, and managed to deliver potentially useful information as if they were talking complete bollocks. Or were they? There was enough ambiguity in the performance to keep me happy – they didn’t tell us what to think, just played it fairly straight and let us make up our own minds, but with enough detail so we could follow a number of different paths for ourselves. Well done. And the ‘play’ hadn’t even started yet!
Nor does it now. Next, we were introduced to Roger, the mole. He was “making a change” in his life – tonight he was about to act for the first time in a play, performing the role of Timon’s servant, Lucilius. (Of course I’m looking up all these names later – you don’t expect me to know them all, do you?) They did a little rehearsal, and Roger did just fine. Lucilius did even better, getting a tasty bride and loads of money to boot!
Then there was a pause while the newly inducted joined us. Actors were dotted around, doing exercises, breathing techniques, meditating, working on a laptop, etc.
Now for a description of the layout. Or, hopefully, a sketch of the layout. (Hope that scanner’s working…)
There were also a couple of tables at the back of the platform, and various artificial potted plants dotted around, not suspecting the fate that awaited them! (Always good to create a bit of suspense early on).
Once the press folk were all seated, we were treated to another question – what would we do if we didn’t get to see Timon of Athens, as we were expecting? Actually, the way the evening was going it wouldn’t have surprised me if the whole cast had just gathered on the stage and we’d had a long chat about life, the universe, and everything. But I digress.
After our expectations had been confronted, we were treated to a variety of actors coming forward to (presumably) talk about the play. I say presumably because most of them spoke in a foreign language. I found it all quite funny. I don’t know if I’ve adequately got across how much humour there was in all of this, and that set the scene for these actors to give us their talks, with various gestures and the odd English word popping up here and there. Also the sound effect of a dog barking. Somehow it all worked, and was really funny, in a nice way.
Well, that’s what happened before the play began – I may have missed some stuff, and put some things in the wrong order, but that’s how I remember it. Now for the actual play.
I won’t go through it in such detail, mainly because I can’t remember it so clearly. The play itself was interspersed with various actors telling us their experiences of being homeless – often very moving, and an interesting juxtaposition with Timon’s situation. We start with the two toadies bringing gifts to Timon, and see his generosity to Lucilius and others. He feasts his friends lavishly, and can even accommodate the philosopher Apemantus, who criticises Timon’s excesses. For the feast, some of the tables that form the front platform are moved slightly to become two dining tables, which allow for extra seating at dinner. The highlight of the meal is several large towers of Ferrero Roche chocolates, apparently real, judging by the number of wrappers being thrown around later – this is a very rubbish-strewn production.
All of Timon’s ‘friends’ praise him enthusiastically, and he responds by giving away even more of what he doesn’t have – we learn from his steward that Timon has racked up major debts, but he’s completely oblivious, and refuses to listen to his steward, the only character who really cares about him. The obvious parallel I could see with today’s world is the excessive debt so many in the UK are living with. At some point, these debts will have to be paid, but how? And it’s never clear how Timon comes by his money – another parallel with today, where the credit just seems to pour in from nowhere. The bankers funding Timon are shown here as City types, tapping away at their laptops while sending others out to collect what’s due.
Finally, Timon is down and out, unable to meet his creditors’ demands, but confident that his ‘friends’ will rally round. They give the usual range of excuses – sorry, but I’m a bit short myself just now, it’s not a good time to be lending money, and the outright winner – I’m so miffed that he didn’t come to me, his best friend, first that I’ll not lend him anything! Even Timon has to admit defeat. But, being a man of extremes, he doesn’t just shrug philosophically and learn his lesson. Oh no, he has to go to the other extreme and start raging at all humanity.
First he has his servants invite all these false friends for another feast, only this time, the fare is a lot less pleasant. Bear in mind that Shakespeare has Timon offer his guests water and stones. Well, I hope they were faking it in this production, because when Timon says he’ll provide the food and drink, he means it, literally! All the product of his own body. I was suspicious when the carafes were filled with yellowish fluid, but the full horror became apparent when the lids are lifted off the plates, and ‘turds au naturel’ are presented to the understandably upset dinner guests. They’d probably been starving themselves all day so they could leech more effectively off Timon’s hospitality, so the nastiness of the proffered repast was suitably effective.
It’s at this point that one intriguing aspect of the staging came forward. There are actually three actors playing Timon. Bit unusual, but there we are. The main Timon was the one regular actor in the cast, and at this point, another actor takes over the part, really giving it his all in venting Timon’s rage. I wasn’t sure at first why they’d done it this way, but it may just have been to emphasise the different stages of Timon’s experience – all hunky-dory, rage, extreme cynicism. It seemed to work OK, and certainly kept me on my toes, though I wouldn’t recommend it as a regular feature.
We had a break now, quite a relief after all we’d been through. Meanwhile, the cast began to rearrange the set even more. Timon had been pretty stroppy before the interval, and various pieces of furniture had been thrown about a bit. The actors now made it worse. Much worse, including opening up a big hole in the front platform floor. Plants were flung over, rubbish was everywhere. This wilderness was Timon’s new home. And, appropriately enough, we had a new Timon to go with it. Timon 3 skulked about this debris, giving us the benefit of his revised view of humanity. He’s visited by various people, though this is a much trimmed down version from what I can remember. He finds gold again – is he the world’s luckiest man? – but does nothing with it, gives some away but that’s all. He has realised that gold can’t buy friendship, only hangers-on, but he despises everything so much, he’s not prepared to do any good with it either. Eventually he dies, and his epitaph is read out. End of play.
It’s during this second part that we see most of the actors’ stories. There’s also a sub-plot about Alcibiades, an Athenian captain, who seems to be more of a genuine friend to Timon. One of Alcibiades’ friends is to be executed for murder, and Alcibiades pleads for him to be shown mercy. The senate are not sympathetic, and his temper gets the better of him. Piqued, the senate banish him. He leaves, but returns and conquers Athens. Quite a sub-plot. And what does it have to do with Timon’s story, we wonder? Well, here it echoed the lack of gratitude shown by Timon’s beneficiaries. The man whom Alcibiades pleads for has done good service to Athens in its wars; he’s earned his pardon, as far as Alcibiades is concerned. The senate begrudge everything, and get their comeuppance. There’s also the contrast with Timon – Alcibiades has earned his reputation and whatever money he has, while Timon is praised, but we never learn for what. Was he a valiant soldier? Did he carry out some great feat, or render some service to Athens? We never find out, and it’s the unsubstantiated nature of Timon’s wealth and reputation that underpins his downfall. Alcibiades can raise troops loyal to him to take revenge for his treatment. Timon is left to rage impotently at the whole world.
It would have been nice to have rounded off the evening with a reference back to the management seminar idea we started with, but it was an exhausting evening to watch, never mind perform in, so I’m not surprised they ended it with Timon’s epitaph. The energy of this staging was amazing. Not just in terms of the physical energy, but the way the actors blended the various aspects together. It was a great piece of teamwork, and I would happily see this company again.
© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me