Timon of Athens
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
National Theatre of Great Britain
Timon – Simon Russell Beale
Flavia – Deborah Findlay
Apemantus – Hilton McRae
Alcibiades – Ciaran McMenamin
Flaminia – Olivia Llewellyn
Servillius – Tim Samuels
Philotus – Alfred Enoch
Lucillius – Stavros Demetraki
A poet – Nick Sampson
A painter – Penny Layden
A jeweller – Jo Dockery
Lucullus – Paul Bentall
Sempronia – Lynette Edwards
Gnawing the flesh. It was the best of Timon; it was the worst of Timon. Reducing a stage production to one sentence rarely does it justice, but the National Theatre’s new, wildly popular Timon of Athens, mounted as a showcase for London’s favorite actor, Simon Russell Beale, wins the best and worst prize on several counts. It takes the messiest of Shakespeare’s late plays, a nasty, grinding parable about misanthropy, and delivers a glittering first half that is unexpected magic before the genii departs and we endure the dismal gray of the second half.
No one is at fault for this dichotomy except the fates, who tease us with a play in corrupt edition. It starts off with the cream of Shakespeare’s bitter satire, only to devolve abruptly into repetitious ranting and a collapsing plot. The story runs out of oxygen about the same time that the audience does. There’s not even a proper last line, which was corrected in this production by lifting one from As You Like It.
Dating Shakespeare’s chronology is always tricky, but if the scholars have it right, The Life of Timon of Athens appeared around 1605, placing it in the vicinity of the so-called problem plays like Measure for Measure (1603-1604), although its splenetic hatred of humanity draws Timon closer to Troilus and Cressida (1602) — the scalding cynicism of Thersites in that play boils over into the philosopher Apemantus in this one. The text is a hopeless jumble, and by a clever dodge, Oxford editors surmise that some of it must have come from Thomas Middleton, who is talented enough to pass for Shakespeare if you squint your eyes and sloppy enough to let Shakespeare off the hook for some appalling poetry. No one really knows.
What we have here is psychological deformity, first masking as generosity. Timon, the richest man in Athens, is a demented benefactor, handing out ten thousand drachmas like Kleenexes, tearing up IOUs when debtors try to pay him back, and rewarding artists and poets who fawn to the point of nausea (Shakespeare knew his subject) with bags of cash. Nicholas Hytner has achieved raging success as director of the National by being the best impresario they ever had. Here he shrewdly updates Timon to London before the economic collapse of 2008.
If the Blitz was Britain’s finest hour, the Bubble was its worst, and Hytner delivers a hilarious parody of party people in Versace and wrap-around shades, swilling down the good stuff while ignoring a giant projection over their heads of El Greco’s painting, Christ Driving the Money Changers from the Temple. It hangs in the National Gallery across the Thames but is presented here as a gift to the city from Timon. (For an act of moral cleansing, someone should drive the currency changers from Heathrow, with their exorbitant fees.)
Shakespeare is clearly entertaining himself. As Timon’s friends prove faithless, we get Lear lite. Excessive generosity has bankrupted Timon, but when he holds his hand out, gross ingratitude bites it. For reasons unknown, Shakespeare was magnetized to betrayals that on the surface are mundane and almost banal, which he puffs up extravagantly. After all, it’s a truism that friends who exist only to take are not the kind of friends you really want. One feels that Shakespeare was under pressure to deliver a new play, probably to the sophisticates of the court rather than the thrill-seeking rabble, and so we get light, urbane banter between gullible Timon and the world-weary philosopher Apemantus who will dog him as his fortunes decline:
Good morrow to thee, gentle Apemantus!
Till I be gentle, stay thou for thy good morrow;
When thou art Timon’s dog, and these knaves honest.
Why dost thou call them knaves? Thou know’st them not.
Are they not Athenians?
Then I repent not.
The setup for the fall of a fool is easy-peasy, and once the fair-weather friends reveal their true nature, Timon’s raillery grows juicy. He has invited his troupe of flatterers to a banquet, but when they uncover the dishes, nothing but water is in them. Timon’s rebuke is scorching:
Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap and knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!
An actor with a nimble tongue can turn this catalog of insults into satiric music, and Russell Beale does. (Don’t we all dream of the killing cut that flattens our enemies?) To ramp up the disgust, Hytner turns the water into dogshit, which Timon smears on the head of one unlucky guest before all flee. It took a lot of jiggery-pokery with the text — adding and subtracting lines, inventing a few new ones, rearranging the order of scenes, etc. — for Timon to work so well theatrically. One is reminded that the play has no record of being staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime, no quotations or reference by others, nada. Fiddling with it is no great crime.
And the platform for Russell Beale lifts him to the height of modern Shakespeare acting. Gray-haired, short, and roly-poly, he lacks the physical gifts of a leading man. His best vocal register is the whine. There are no bass notes; he couldn’t, like Bottom, “roar, that I will make the duke say ‘Let him roar again, let him roar again.’” Russell Beale’s improbable magnetism derives from his innocent, sympathetic eyes, a humble gait, a pleasing humanity, and a sly wit that delivers paper cuts when you least expect them. As Timon the fool he is so pleased to be liked that you never want him to become disillusioned, and when he inevitably is, you wince at the track of his tears.
The velocity of his performance shoots about halfway into the second half, which is set in a camp for the homeless somewhere wretched, before we lose trust in the whole enterprise. Timon’s ranting was entertaining, until you realize that there will be yards and yards more. The plot turns from realism to parable: Timon finds a hidden horde of gold, which might save him, but he is the fixed emblem of the Misanthrope, a Volpone who keeps on tickin’ no matter how much he takes a lickin’. Thieves beat him up for his money; a rebel band led by the inflammatory Alcibiades throws him around. We feel cheated as it becomes clear that Shakespeare is going to doom this wretch — Timon drowns himself offstage before the final curtain — without pity, catharsis, or redemption. A mood of “Why bother?” hangs over the proceedings, despite Hytner’s efforts to draw parallels with modern London’s falsities.
With enough ink and dogged loyalty, the other problem plays can be justified and appreciated on their own terms. Shakespeare spitting in our faces is still Shakespeare. Timon raises much bigger doubts. The only reason to endure this tedious complainer in the last two acts is for the bilious duel that ensues when Apemantus reappears for his I-told-you-so. Russell Beale meets his match in the stoic, cynical Hilton McRae, who turns disillusion into a Dust Bowl. Their mutual rancor devolves into atavistic hatred:
Away, thou issue of a mangy dog!
Choler does kill me that thou art alive.
Away, thou tedious rogue! I am sorry I shall lose
A stone by thee.
(Throws a stone at him.)
Rogue, rogue, rogue!
It’s not King Lear by any stretch, and there are another hundred lines of the same stuff (I counted), wearing the audience’s patience down to a nub. Satire never delivers solace, and rather than creating fresh sympathy for people who have been crushed by the Great Recession, this production turns jeering into a spectator sport. Timon never arrives at a speck of insight. It seems dumb, in fact, when your dying thought is “Oh, the gall of it all.” But Hytner deserves praise for turning a three-hour pity party into this much fun, while it lasted.
“Now we go in content to Liberty.”