Sunday, December 30, 2012

Timon of Athens Review

Timon of Athens
NT Live - Olivier Theatre, London

For me, 2012 has been quite a year in terms of Shakespeare plays. Thanks to the World Shakespeare Festival I have been able to see three of the Bard's plays for the first time. I then added a fourth at the RSC which I saw outside the festival. They have varied, one being one of my favorite productions of the year, and another being one of my least favourite productions. One of the final productions of the festival was the National Theatre's Timon of Athens, one of Shakespeare's lesser plays that is considered to be two plays in one. But how did it fare for me.

The title character is a wealthy and generous Athenian. He gives money to his patrons, who want to please him so that he will give them more. Eventually Timon discovers that he is heavily in debt, so he sends his servants to his closest friends to ask for money. When they all decline, he invites them to a feast where all he offers are disgusting substances before he flees from his house. He becomes a vagrant and curses world for what it has done to him. He soon discovers a trove of gold, which he gives away when people ask for it

The play certainly feels like it is split into two plays. What I liked about the first half of this production was its almost episodic structure, in which the audience observes different encounters between Timon and his suitors, between the suitors themselves and between other characters. Each encounter seems to become a discrete scene on its own. This allows the audience to ponder whether money buys friendship. A particular highlight occurred at the beginning when a poet, a painter, a jeweler and a merchant shows off their gifts, which they confidently expected Timon to buy, thus showing him as the patron with a bottomless purse. Timon's decline was compelling to watch as everything falls apart for both him and his followers.

The second half mostly comprises of one long scene in which Timon becomes the vagrant. Now I would like to apologise in advance that I have not being sending out my reviews sooner but the last few months have been busy. This is also affecting my opinion on this play because I had no time to read up on it beforehand and therefore had mixed feelings about the messages being conveyed. I understood the message about Timon's charitable character and whether friendship can be bought. I could see that as Timon handed out the gold during the second act, he knew that people will ask for more with nothing to give in return. Indeed when Flavia returns with the leaders of Athens, who want the gold in order to deal with the economy, one can see the sense of betrayal etched on Timon's face. However I felt that this theme of charity and friendship was over-emphasised. Other issues including the rioting and the economy were merely background issues and very underwritten whilst the issues of charity and friendship were stretched out in the second act.

This production was really relying upon the acting itself which was top-notch. Simon Russell Beale, as Timon, basked in the supposed infatuation of Timon's supporters. During the 'nasty' banquet scene he gradually transformed into a malicious lunatic. However, the second act was where Simon really shines as he becomes the dejected and embittered vagrant cursing humanity. Hilton McRae stood out as a sour Apemantus who mirrors what Timon becomes in the second act. Deborah Findlay played the faithful servant, Flavia, and it was interesting to watch her play the mother figure as she reveals her growing concerns for Timon. Timon's friends are really stereotypes of people who are hungry for money and the cast did well to present these characters.

Nicholas Hytner made every effort to make the play relevant by setting it in the present, making references to the state of the economy, the Occupy London encampment, and the London Riots. All of these issues were constantly in the background whilst Timon holds dinner parties with his friends, after opening the 'Timon Room' in the equivalent of the National Portrait Gallery. The sets were on the whole simple, which allowed objects like a large dinning table and chairs to move on and off using the Olivier Theatre's revolving stage.

This was a well acted and firm production, with great performances from Simon Russell Beale, Hilton McRae and Deborah Findlay. However I would like to see this play again and gain a better understanding which sadly I did not get from this production. Once again the production was screened on the last performance, but for newcomers to the play this would have been worth a high Bargain.

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