Thursday, 25 October 2012

Timon of Athens - review

Written by: Stephen St Clement

National Theatre (Olivier), London

Inspired by the economic recession and last year’s London riots, this production of Timon of Athens is able to bring relevance and immediacy to one of Shakespeare’s most difficult plays.

The play follows the rich and prosperous Lord Timon, portrayed by the virtuosic Simon Russell Beale, as he treats the high society of Athens to lavish banquets and extravagant gifts, believing that he is winning their undying love and loyalty in the process. But when his seemingly endless funds finally run out, not one of his many flatterers and admirers answer his requests for help, forcing him to flee from the debt collectors and into the dangerous wilderness outside of Athens.

The creative team of Nicholas Hytner, Tim Hatley and Bruno Poet present their concept of the modern day London as the play’s setting right from the opening image of protesters gathered amongst clustered tents, reminiscent of the Occupy London movement which began just over a year ago. Hatley (designer) and Poet (lighting) utilise the Olivier’s technical abilities to great effect, presenting luxurious dining halls and offices before conjuring up the ruptured husk of post-riot London.

As the guests arrive at the opening of the play, I was struck by their almost pantomime vileness, in particular Tom Robertson’s revoltingly ‘rah’ Ventidius. However, this seems a purposeful device used by Hytner to highlight the placid innocence of Timon, his crime being one not of arrogance, but rather of naivety; as one of his many false friends, has it: “Every man has his fault, and honesty is his.” The ensemble does great work in achieving this contrast; you could almost smell the s**t they are shovelling – and, in one particular case, nearly eating.

Hilton McRae provides the best support as the cynical philosopher Apemantus, letting fly at Timon with a flurry of sardonic barbs that cut through the sycophantic fawning of the rest like knife through butter. His exchange of insults with the newly destitute Timon provides the most entertaining moment of the play, whilst reminding you of just how funny Shakespeare can be when delivered by those who really know what they’re doing.

As for the eponymous protagonist, Simon Russell Beale shows himself to be a true master of the art. He stands alongside Mark Rylance as one of the very finest Shakespearean performers of our age, speaking that often-inaccessible language with an almost unbelievable fluency and ease. Effortlessly entertaining in his delivery and physicality, he holds the audience completely under his spell throughout, whilst seemingly having the time of his life.

Hytner sacrifices some of the play’s already limited narrative coherency in order to keep the focus fully on the central performance by Beale, but it proves to be a wise compromise. Whilst not a perfect allegory for our times, this pessimistic tale of one man’s descent from generosity into misanthropy combines gravity with a lightness of touch that leaves you feeling strangely elated and enlightened.

This production runs until 1 November 2012. 

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