×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Timon of Athens

As gestures go, hanging a giant copy of El Greco's "Christ driving the moneylenders from the Temple" over the stage is pretty bold. But since Shakespeare's rarely staged "Timon of Athens" is about little else but the (ab)use of money, the gesture is not only entirely apposite, it's typical of the striking nature of Nicholas Hytner's caustic, lucid National Theater production.

With:
Timon of Athens - Simon Russell Beale
Flavia - Deborah Findlay
Apemantus - Hilton McRae
A poet - Nick Sampson
A painter - Penny Layden
Alcibiades - Ciaran McMenamin
Flaminia - Olivia Llewellyn
Servilius - Tim Samuels
Lucullus - Paul Bentall
Ventidius - Tom Robertson
Varro - Martin Chamberlain
Isidore - Michael Sheldon
Sempronia - Lynette Edwards

As gestures go, hanging a giant copy of El Greco’s “Christ driving the moneylenders from the Temple” over the stage is pretty bold. But since Shakespeare’s rarely staged “Timon of Athens” is about little else but the (ab)use of money, the gesture is not only entirely apposite, it’s typical of the striking nature of Nicholas Hytner’s caustic, lucid National Theater production.

Leaving aside debates about authorship — “Timon” is thought to be co-written with Thomas Middleton — there are any number of reasons why the play is seldom staged. Although it typically presents a title character’s epic fall, it eschews the depiction of personality that would render it as tragedy. There are no subplots. Timon (Simon Russell Beale) is presented without surrounding personal relationships; neither he nor anyone else in the play has an anchoring love plot. It’s less a play than a ruthlessly pursued parable.

There has probably never been a point at which “Timon of Athens” didn’t seem timely, but any doubts are swept away by Hytner’s contemporary staging. The opening vision is one of stark disparity as an encampment of anti-capitalist Occupy-style protesters is hidden behind designer Tim Hatley’s elegant gray wall flying in to bisect the turntable of the giant Olivier stage.

We’re at London’s National Gallery at a tastefully exclusive fundraising evening at “The Timon Room,” where artistic flatterers and philanthropists are all praising the ceaseless benevolence of the titular benefactor. Throughout the first half, Shakespeare’s insincere, power-hungry friends and fawners are reimagined as immediately recognizable, sharply dressed hangers on, posh-boy tycoons and business types.

Not only is the update as witty as it is effective, it’s effortless. The same applies to Hytner’s neat regendering of various roles up to and including Timon’s faithful steward Flavius who, in the expert hands of Deborah Findlay. now becomes the defiant Flavia.

Her touchingly staunch devotion is counterbalanced by the cynicism of Hilton McRae as the philosopher Apemantus. He sidles about the action and takes a chair only at the very edge of Timon’s dinner parties. but McRae is fully engaged with his cynical view of Timon’s behavior. Acting as a kind of conscience, he dismisses the sycophancy and questions Timon’s motives — wisely, as it turns out, since when Timon’s well suddenly runs dry, no one will return his favor and save him.

The slower, more self-regarding second half doesn’t match the zest of the first, which is distinguished by wonderfully fluid staging, pin-sharp, laughter-inducing cameos and cracking pacing.

Russell Beale is now wretched and abandoned in a landscape of detritus and decay made all the more threatening by Christopher Shutt’s looming soundscape, which underpins the moral emptiness and adds violence to the superbly staged crowd scenes led by Ciaran McMenamin’s Alcibiades.

Timon’s remaining belongings are piled high in an abandoned supermarket trolley in mocking contrast to his spirits. Russell Beale undoubtedly energizes Timon’s slump from disbelief through to misanthropy. But although we see and hear his impressively towering reactions to the horror in which he finds himself, he allows Timon’s suicidal misery to cloud his behavior too soon. Paradoxically, by showing us so much, we lose the opportunity to feel the pain.

In his defense, although Timon’s plight is upsetting, the role lacks empathy — another reason for the play’s obscurity. Yet that problem subsides beneath the cumulative punch of Hytner’s exhilarating rethink, which climaxes with the Athenian protesters bought off by the chilling power of financial authority figures. Contemporary parallels, anyone?

What looks to be a surprise domestic hit will be exported via worldwide live broadcast screenings on Nov. 1. It can only further enhance the already enviably adventurous and successful NT brand.

Popular on Variety

Timon of Athens

Olivier, National Theater, London; 1,127 seats; £32 $50 top

Production: A National Theater presentation of a play in two acts by William Shakespeare. Directed by Nicholas Hytner.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Tim Hatley; lighting, Bruno Poet; sound, Christopher Shutt; music, Grant Olding; choreography, Edward Watson; production stage manager, Kerry McDevitt. Opened, reviewed July 17, 2012. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Timon of Athens - Simon Russell Beale
Flavia - Deborah Findlay
Apemantus - Hilton McRae
A poet - Nick Sampson
A painter - Penny Layden
Alcibiades - Ciaran McMenamin
Flaminia - Olivia Llewellyn
Servilius - Tim Samuels
Lucullus - Paul Bentall
Ventidius - Tom Robertson
Varro - Martin Chamberlain
Isidore - Michael Sheldon
Sempronia - Lynette EdwardsWith Christina Arestis, Charlie Blackwood, Scheherazade Brathwaite, Anna Burkholder, Jamie Champion, Olivia Cowley, Jason Cheater, Stavros Demetraki, Jo Dockery, Paul Dodds, Tyson Douglas, Craige Els, Alfred Enoch, Harper James, Matt Jessup, Cindy Jourdain, Pandora McCormick, Ross Waiton, Hayn Whiteside.

More Legit

  • Secret Derren Brown review

    Broadway Review: 'Derren Brown: Secret'

    Audiences love to be fooled, whether it’s with clever plotting with a twist, the arrival of an unexpected character or even a charming flimflam man with a British accent. The latter is Derren Brown, and he’s entertaining audiences for a limited run at the Cort Theatre, where he is playing head-scratching mind games and other [...]

  • Matthew Broderick, Sarah Jessica ParkerNew York

    Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker to Reunite on Broadway for 'Plaza Suite'

    Real-life couple Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker are hitting the Broadway stage again for a reboot of the late Neil Simon’s 1968 play “Plaza Suite.” The staging will mark the Broadway directorial debut of Tony award-winner John Benjamin Hickey. Set in New York City’s Plaza Hotel in Suite 719, “Plaza Suite” is comprised of [...]

  • Derren Brown

    Listen: Derren Brown Spills His Broadway 'Secret'

    Derren Brown has spent a lot of his career performing magic shows on theater stages — but he’ll be the first to tell you that magic usually doesn’t make for great theater. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “If you’re a magician of any sort, you can make stuff happen with a click of your [...]

  • A Very Expensive Poison review

    London Theater Review: 'A Very Expensive Poison'

    Vladimir Putin owes his power to the stage. The president’s closest advisor trained as a theatre director before applying his art to politics, and ran Russia like a staged reality, spinning so many fictions that truth itself began to blur. By scrambling the story and sowing confusion, Putin could exert absolute control. The long-awaited latest [...]

  • Betrayal review Tom Hiddleston

    Broadway Review: 'Betrayal' With Tom Hiddleston

    and Zawe Ashton as a long-married couple and Charlie Cox as the secret lover. Director Jamie Lloyd’s impeccable direction — now on Broadway, after a hot-ticket London run — strips Pinter’s 1978 play to its bare bones: the excruciating examination of the slow death of a marriage.  It’s a daring approach, leaving the characters nowhere [...]

  • Jayne Houdyshell arrives at the 71st

    'The Music Man' Revival Adds Four Tony Winners to Broadway Cast

    Tony Award-winners Jayne Houdyshell, Jefferson Mays, Marie Mullen and Shuler Hensley will join stars Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in the upcoming Broadway revival of “The Music Man.” In “The Music Man,” Jackman will play con-man Harold Hill, who arrives in a small, fictional Iowa town called River City and urges the townsfolk to start [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content