Timon Of Athens – October 2012

7/10

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

Timon Of Athens – October 2006

Experience: 6/10

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