By William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
Venue: Olivier Theatre
Date: Sunday 14th October 2012
This was a stunning production, making use of the current financial situation to create a powerful modern-dress retelling of the story, with a striking set design bringing each scene vividly alive. However, this is still Timon, a play with few likeable characters and some impenetrable dialogue, so the overall effect wasn’t as enjoyable as it might have been, especially as Alcibiades’ role was severely cut to make it fit the production’s setting. But even so, this was well worth seeing, and given the current climate someone just had to do this kind of production; the National has certainly done it well.
We had to put up with the droning background music again at the start, while the back half of the stage was filled with tents to represent the Occupy protest outside St Paul’s. At least this kept my expectations down. There were a few people sitting or standing around the tents and a couple of placards facing away from us right at the back. The meaning was clear, and it was through this setting that Timon and his entourage swept, completely ignoring it, while the wall was lowered into position across the middle of the stage. It had a large central area which held a huge painting for this first scene, but could also have a huge window with various backdrops during later scenes. There were two doorways, normal sized, on either side which served to emphasis the height of the main wall.
The first scene was set in an art gallery where the new room being sponsored by Timon was being unveiled – ‘The Timon Room’ appeared above each doorway to great applause during this scene. Waiters held trays of champagne, and the various guests ebbed and flowed around the main man while two of the guests, the painter and the poet, came to the front of the stage to have their little chat. They indicated the actor and the jeweller, who were standing by the drinks tray at that point, and produced their own works during this scene; we saw the book but only the back of the painting.
Timon didn’t speak until the messenger came from Ventidius, but his actions had already given us a sense of his character. He was a man so used to wealth from birth that he couldn’t imagine not having money, and he had presumably only known ‘friends’ who were attracted to his wealth and could be bought. That he was buying them too dear was soon evident, regardless of his steward’s comments, and I had the impression that his extravagance reflected a competitive approach to wealth – to show how wealthy he was he had to give back more than he received. Or it could just have been his natural generosity.
After Ventidius was freed he came to give Timon his thanks and his money back. Timon ripped up the cheque with a confident assertion that his friend would do the same for him if he was ever in need. Before this we had already had Lucullus complaining to Timon that Lucilius, Timon’s servant, had won Lucullus’s daughter’s love and he, Lucullus, wasn’t happy about it. He didn’t want his daughter married to a servant! Timon did the decent thing and matched the dowry so that his servant could marry the woman he loved and who loved him, but his generosity was clearly misjudged in this case as both Lucilius and Lucullus, as they left the stage, grinned and congratulated each other on their success at milking Timon of some more of his wealth. Paul Bentall was particularly good as Lucullus, a man so miserly he practically boasted of it in public.
Then the poet, painter and jeweller presented their ‘gifts’ to Timon, followed by Apemantus’s long diatribe against all the folly on show. Timon seemed to be gently puzzled by Apemantus’s hostility to all the lovely people whom Timon considered his friends. Timon left after this part, with Alcibiades’ entrance being cut, and after Apemantus and the lords had their say, the banquet was brought on to stage by means of the revolve, with the table and chairs coming through one of the doorways. A curtain was dropped to cover the picture and the guests milled about, looking for their places. Ventidius arrived, as did Apemantus, and the starter was served around Apemantus’s line “I scorn thy meat”, with his subsequent lines referring to the dinner guests. Alcibiades was cut again, and the ladies who wished admittance were two ballet dancers who performed on a stage which was revealed when the curtain was drawn back. Their dance was a kind of graceful battle, and afterwards they came round to join the rest at the table.
Yet again there were gifts for the guests, with lots of boxes on a tray presumably holding jewellery or watches. This was the occasion of Flavia’s first lines about Timon’s overspending; played by Deborah Findlay, this was another cross-gender casting which worked perfectly well. After Timon gave out a few boxes directly, he indicated the remaining pile and there was a general rush by most of the guests to grab what they could. I noticed one of the dancers had several boxes in her hands. The party over, the guests left apart from Apemantus, and this time Timon was more short with him as if he was concerned about Apemantus rocking the boat. Apemantus took it badly, and left with a biting comment about Timon’s deafness to flattery.
Almost immediately the set changed to show us an office, clearly an investment bank or similar. There were identifiable city buildings outside the window, but as I don’t know London well enough I couldn’t be more specific. One of the bankers was concerned about Timon’s financial status, and the sight of a façade crumbling under scrutiny was completely up-to-date. The employees who were sent to collect money from Timon were fobbed off yet again by Flavia, but it was obvious that matters were only going to get worse. When Timon did finally realise he was bankrupt, he turned on Flavia and tried to blame her, but she was able to defend herself by reminding him of all the times she’d tried to tell him what was going on and was ignored.
Then came Timon’s belief in the generosity of his friends. His servants looked sceptical when he told them to go to his various ‘friends’ to ask for large sums of money, but they went anyway. The first, Flaminia, turned up in Lucullus’s office in the City, and Paul Bentall was again magnificent as the grasping miser who assumed another lavish present was on its way and then had to refuse to lend some money; it wasn’t difficult for him, and he didn’t bother to cover it with a pretence of sorrow. He did try to cuddle up to the young attractive (female) Flaminia though, dirty old man. She repelled his advances and left, sorrowfully.
The second and third servants fared no better, with the third approaching one of the politicians, Sempronia, who gave the least valid excuse of all, but did it expertly as befitted her political skills. Timon’s anger flared up with the bad news, and he ordered his servants to bid the various ‘friends’ to another dinner, over-riding Flavia’s objections that they couldn’t provide one. Alcibiades’ run in with the Athenian government was dropped, and so we were straight into the ‘feast’, complete with covered dishes, which was eagerly attended by the same sycophantic crew from the earlier meal. Timon’s prayer of thanks at the start of the feast was full of his contempt and anger, thinly disguised with a veneer of politeness, and caused a few strange looks from the guests, but it was the revelation of the ‘turds au naturel’ when the lids were removed that really shocked them. Timon threw some about to add to the unpleasantness, and I assume the liquid offered to the guests was of a matching vintage. The guests soon fled, and Timon had his rant against mankind, tearing off his jacket and throwing away his credit cards as he did so.
I think the next scene came after the interval. Back at Timon’s house, there were various packing cases sitting in the middle of the floor and the three servants were leaving, carrying boxes with their personal effects. Flavia gave them some of her remaining money, and their collective sorrow at Timon’s downfall was almost surprising – he had clearly managed to earn some goodwill without always buying it. Flavia declared her intention to follow Timon and serve him as best she could, and then the wall was lifted to reveal a scarred industrial landscape with lots of concrete pillar bases littered about the place. The metal reinforcing rods were still sticking up out of them, and there was a large grating beside one of these pillars near the front. There was an air of decay and filth, though I didn’t see much debris around the place – just a few black bin liners near the front pillar. This was the setting for the remainder of the play.
Timon approached from the rear of the stage, pushing a supermarket trolley filled with bags and other items, and continued his diatribe against humanity. He came to the forward pillar and parked his trolley behind it, and when he started to ‘dig’ he actually lifted the grating and looked underneath. They shone a golden light up from the hole to indicate the golden hoard he’d discovered, and he pulled out two sizeable money boxes and some ingots before putting the grating back. He then stashed the boxes and ingots in his trolley, covering them up with a sleeping bag or blanket.
Alcibiades, the leader of the Occupy protest in this version, turned up with his followers and stood on the pillar to give a speech to them. Timon hid at first, but joined the rear of the group and eventually joined in with the regular text; where Alcibiades’ lines came from I don’t know. Timon produced one of the money boxes and tipped it out for the protesters to scramble for – they made short work of clearing the stage.
After they left, Timon rummaged in the bin liners for something to eat, discovering a foil tray and a glass bottle. Before he could eat his find, Apemantus arrived, and they had a shortened version of their conversation. Apemantus offered Timon some food, but he turned it down and Apemantus left, full of scorn for Timon’s extreme change of attitude. The thieves also paid Timon a visit and gave him a beating as well. He gave them the second money box and plenty of curses to go with the contents.
Flavia was the next to arrive, and she offered Timon what money she had, plus her service as his steward. She gave him a napkin to clean his bloody nose, but he still sent her away. He then took a little break himself, which gave an opportunity for the painter and the poet to have a chat with each other when they walked on stage. They were eager to find out whether Timon had indeed found more riches, and he took the opportunity to insult them mercilessly. He did offer them food – the remains he’d picked out of the bin bag, which they were too cowardly and greedy to refuse.
The final visitors were the senators of Athens, attempting to persuade Timon to return with them and help prevent Alcibiades’ attack on the city. Timon scorned them also, and left the stage for the last time. The closing scene was back in the city, with a long table and Alcibiades and two senators sitting behind it, giving a news conference. Some of Alcibiades’ lines were used to provide a speech for him, and then a soldier brought the news of Timon’s death. Alcibiades’ final lines closed the play, and there was strong applause from everyone, with some standing amongst the audience that I could see.
I liked a lot about this production, with its contemporary take on this difficult play. The performances were all superb and there was strength in depth, as there always is at the National. Deborah Findlay was good as the female steward Flavia, Hilton Macrae did a good job as Apemantus and Paul Bentall, as mentioned before, was magnificent as Lucullus the miser. Simon Russell Beale was an excellent Timon, with his tremendous ability to deliver the lines with clarity and meaning. His attitude towards money was well defined, showing us someone who has never had to check the balance in his account before splashing out on some extravagance or other, but who was also very dependent on others and his own wealth for his self-esteem. I could understand why his servants cared about him and also why he was so easily duped into giving his money away. The change into angry Timon was also good, although the dialogue does go a bit downhill from then on.
Apart from the severe cuts to Alcibiades’ part, which I felt unbalanced the play a little, I was aware of one potential downside to such a detailed staging; when Timon discovered the gold hidden under the grating, my first thought was that the criminal gang which hid it there would probably want it back before long, and Timon would be well advised to leave it where it lay. Keeping the setting vague and forest-like doesn’t create that problem, but with so much emphasis on present day ‘reality’ it was an inevitable consequence. Not a major problem, of course, but I still found it a distraction from the flow of the story. I have seen productions I’ve preferred to this one, but it was still a good offering, and nice to see this less popular play being staged in the Olivier and getting both full houses and rave reviews! Wonders will never cease.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me