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.