Author: William Shakespeare
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Producer: National Theatre
Cast includes: Simon Russell Beale, Hilton McRae, Ciaran McMenamin, Deborah Findlay, Olivia Llewellyn, Penny Layden, Nick Sampson, Paul Bentall, Craige Els, Martin Chamberlain
There’s a small but fascinating exhibition in one of the National Theatre’s foyers which shows how director Nicholas Hytner and his team brought their production to the stage along with some historical artefacts relating to
the play’s history. It reveals that this text, believed to be a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, wasn’t even performed in the author’s lifetime, and it’s had very few productions in the modern world either. This one’s so good it almost makes you wonder why and is so diverting that it’s easy to over look the plays faults.
It’s the story of how Timon, a generous benefactor, is rejected by his sycophantic followers when it appears the money has run out. He swaps his high society life for self-imposed exile in the wilderness and rages at the world. Anything to do with the hollowness of wealth is ripe for comparison
with our current disillusionment with the world of high finance and the production hammers this home with a modern day setting. It’s beautifully done and the first half sits so comfortably in our times that the plays iambic pentameter and archaic vocabulary feel so pertinent that you forget the text was written centuries ago and it feels as if it could have been conceived yesterday.
The set gives us recognisable locations in London 2012. We first encounter Timon when it appears as if a wing of the National Gallery is to be named after him and he further demonstrates his patronage of the arts with a modern dance interlude at a glamorous dinner party where the clever cast play the guests as recognisable types from our up-market gossip columns.
The desperate negotiations to fill his empty bank accounts are played out against London’s sky line including a window view of HSBC’s headquarters and the re-invention of key character’s as female high fliers also make you forget about Elizabethan England. Down on his luck, Timon hides out, like a crazed bag lady, beneath a derelict concrete building reminiscent of the bowels of the National Theatre.
The only jarring note for me was the suggestion that the street campaigners camped outside St. Pauls, on Wall Street and in Tel Aviv recently are an enemy force; Christopher Nolan also does this in the latest Batman film. Why is the liberal elite demonising liberal protest?
Timon is played by Simon Russell Beale, a masterful stage actor who never seems to change from role to role yet effortlessly succeeds in making every part appear as if it were tailor-made for him. Whether he’s Hamlet, Stalin, Oswald from Ghosts or Aerial in the Tempest he plays everyone as the same waspish, sweaty, fussy queen and somehow, every time, it works! Here he’s given long tracts of rather dull ranting yet his emotional precision constantly yanks you back when your mind ought to wander. There’s also a delicious performance from Deborah Findlay who plays his long suffering P.A. with such understatement that she ceases to be an actress playing Shakespeare to a huge audience and seems as if she’s wandered on from a sponsors reception.
All this dazzling window dressing almost obscures the fact that this unloved and unlovely play gives us very little insight into human nature beyond “money doesn’t bring happiness”. In so successfully paralleling then with now, Nicholas Hytner’s brilliant production at least enlarges this to say “Money has never brought happiness”.
VERDICT: **** (Four Stars) The performances and production is so good it almost persuades you the play has something interesting to say.