Friday, 27 July 2012
Timon of Athens at The Olivier
As a general rule I prefer Shakespeare productions to be set in the period, but his least performed play, Timon of Athens, works perfectly as a modern day piece. Not his best work, but it hits the right note under the direction of Nicholas Hytner and starring Simon Russell Beale as Timon. Obviously substituting Athens for London, Hytner litters the stage at the beginning with the Occupy protesters still encamped on the city’s fringe, whilst our first glimpse of the hero at the opening of the new Timon Room, named after him, is situated in the equivalent of The National Gallery. We are being treated to a parable of today – the devastating affect of the power of money.
Timon is an extremely rich Athen’s philanthropist who lavishes gifts and treats on his so-called friends ad infinitum. Artistic freeloaders constantly toady up to him and a poet, excellently portrayed by Nick Sampson, is particularly oily. An insignificant man when not pressing gifts onto sweaty outstretched palms, Timon doesn’t appear to notice sycophants even when they’re right in his face; surely anyone would pick out Ventidius, a coke-sniffing toff as loathsome (mind you, Tom Robertson does make him very funny). But that is one of Timon’s problems. He has no concept of the idea of true friendship. Another flaw in his personality is his lack of moderation. When the money runs out and his friends come up wanting, inventing one excuse after another for not dipping their hands in their pockets to help him, he gets back at them by throwing yet another dinner party. Only this time the gourmet grub is exchanged for excrement. Not a very subtle retaliation.
The only two people in Timon’s life who aren’t afraid to tell him the truth are Flavia (usually Flavius but interestingly played here by Deborah Findlay) his steward and the philosopher, Apemantus (an excellent Hilton McRae). But their loyalty and truthfulness gets them nowhere. In a slightly less satisfactory second half, when Timon is reduced to living in cardboard city with a shopping trolley full to the brim with his remaining worldly possessions, they are both sent packing. Timon no longer trusts anyone and is eaten up with hatred and self-loathing.
Very few actors could make the character of Timon remotely appealing in Act Two, such is his penchant for ranting at anyone and everyone and forgetting any trace of the impeccable manners he had in the First Act. But somehow the wonderful Simon Russell Beale makes his Timon a pitiable figure and we care about what will happen to him. The light and shade in his wonderful voice and his expert delivery of the Shakespearian language makes this less well known Shakespeare play well worth a visit.