at the Olivier Theatre, Saturday 4th August 2012
Philanthropy, especially for the arts, is a hot topic at the moment. In our increasingly privatised society, we must depend on the ‘generosity’ of those better off than ourselves if any kind of innovation is going to take place. This is exactly the kind of statement Nicholas Hytner’s production of Timon of Athens examines, questioning how this kind of attitude can lead to tragic outcomes. But though this is a smart, tight production, the play itself means the whole thing never truly gets off the ground.
Cleverly riffing on the fact that Shakespeare’s text includes a painter, a poet and a philosopher, Hytner presents Timon as a wealthy funder of the arts who is surrounded by greedy people who want a bite of the pie. But he is blinded by the fact that this cannot go on forever; when someone should intervene, they don’t, and he is left on the streets fending for himself. The inclusion of a group of protesters creates an opposition to this viewpoint, creating a slightly more pluralistic reading of the play rather than focussing on Timon himself, allowing a new order at the end of the piece. Particularly interesting is the inclusion of Celia’s speech from As You Like It as a final line, cutting off the last two words, so what rings out is: “Now go we in content/ To liberty”. A seemingly better new world order has been established.
The play itself, however, never really supports these ideas, and Shakespeare’s words feel a little out of place in this production. Hytner has cut the piece, but I wonder whether more could have been done to draw out more from the central aspect. The play – to an extent – mirrors the structure of 13, offering a multitudinous first act followed by a more solitary and slow second, meaning all the momentum built up originally drops as the play progresses. Nevertheless, Tim Hatley’s stylish set (though sparse) is a little bit genius in the first act, constantly revolving to reveal new scenes which appear through two entrances, a little like a giant cuckoo clock lit gorgeously by Bruno Poet.
The inability of big producing houses to hire consistently strong casts is also starting to grate on me; though Ciaran McMenamin’s Alcibiades leaves a lasting impression and Hilton McRae demonstrates vigour as Apemantus, Paul Bentall’s Lucullus never grabs out attention and Deborah Findlay’s Flavia (changed from Flavius) is just plain wooden. Supporting performances are also either far too big or far too small for the space. The only person who gets it spot on is veteran Simon Russell Beale in the title role, whose Timon falls with extraordinary grace and remains clueless about his tragic end even before he dies, maintaining a desirable innocence. It would be good to see Russell Beale outside his comfort zone in the near future, but I guess when he’s as strong as this it’s tough to complain.
Perhaps a stronger cast and a willingness to cut more would give the play the thrust and the drive it needs, but equally we could just accept it’s a rather weak play (by Shakespearean standards). The debate about funding, philanthropy and monetary aid is one we should be having more passionately than we are currently – support should not be cut as freely as Cameron and his cronies are allowing – and we should recognise the tragic structure of recent banking crises as a way of ensuring they don’t happen again. Timon of Athens manages to broach all these things, but disappointingly doesn’t quite pull through as a complete whole, instead floating around as many ideas which need a little more glue.