Reviewed by James Karas
Timon of Athens is generally considered low-grade Shakespeare and is produced infrequently. The deduction is that he wrote it in collaboration with Thomas Middleton. The chance to see a production by the National Theatre of Great Britain was not to be missed even if it was on a movie screen in Toronto and (sort of) live from London. It is in fact pre-recorded.
The production is directed by Nicholas Hytner and has some of the most experienced Shakespearean actors of England led by Simon Russell Beale in the title role. Low-grade Shakespeare becomes first-rate theatre in the hands of the National Theatre with some pluses and some minuses for those watching it on the movie screen.
Timon of Athens is a parable about a rich man who gives all his wealth to his friends. When he becomes bankrupt, they turn their backs on him and he becomes a misanthrope. It is an imperfect morality story as a well-constructed play and quite creaky in its development of characters and themes.
Hytner sets the play in London’s financial district of today where the wealthy Timon is first seen being feted as a benefactor of the Timon Gallery. His generosity knows no bounds as he lavishes money and expensive gifts on everyone who approaches him. The sycophants who are milking him are aspiring artists at best and financiers in well-cut suits.
The jolly atmosphere of giving is turned upside down when Timon goes broke and asks his “friends” for assistance. He is turned down cruelly and ends up as a homeless street person pushing a shopping cart.
Subject to my complaint about the lighting, this is a masterly production by Hytner that makes the play approachable, comprehensible and simply marvellous theatre. Hytner has changed some of the characters from men to women to reflect the modern setting. He finds gold in many places when none seems apparent. The Flaminia-Lucullus scene is a good example. Timon’s servant Flaminius is changed to Flaminia (and played with perfect diction by Olivia Llewellyn). When she approaches Timon’s friend Lucullus of Lucullus Capital (Paul Bental), he makes sexual advances to the attractive Flaminia. There is nothing to indicate this in the text. Hytner is faithful to the original and sees the opportunity to heighten Lucullus’ despicable conduct. A very smart directorial stroke.
Simon Russell Beale gives a stellar performance as Timon. There is a fine line between generosity and denseness and the generous Timon treads on that line before his downfall. When he goes bankrupt, he spews out a torrent of invectives against humanity but he has not learned anything. Beale is brilliant both as the wonderful philanthropist and as the hideous misanthrope.
Hilton McRae plays Apemantus, the cynical philosopher who sees through the vultures who suck up Timon’s wealth. McRae looks like a rumpled academic: smart, decent distrustful and grumpy. Superb work by McRae.
Timon’s steward Flavia provides an example of loyalty and decency in the moral cesspool but she is spat upon by her employer. Parables have no room for people like her, I suppose. In any event Deborah Findlay is a rock-sold steward and does an exceptional job in the role.
The leeches and the servants are almost interchangeable within their group but Tom Robertson does stand out as Ventidius, the drunk, wealthy homosexual who refuses to help Timon even though he had paid for him (Ventidius) to be released from prison.
The play is performed on the large Olivier stage of the National Theatre. We are restricted for most of the production to watching actors perform within the confines of a spotlight. The background is almost always dark and at times all one sees is an actor’s lit face and blackness all around. We get to see a bit more in some of the scenes and in the second half when Timon lives in a pile of garbage and finds gold in the sewer.
The set is sparse. We see a large dining table, a huge window with office towers in the background and a few pieces of furniture. All of it is effective but watching much of the performance in the boundaries of a spotlight I found unsatisfactory.
The close-ups were helpful but the only time we saw the shape of the set and the stage was during intermission.
In the end Hytner does deliver a brilliant recreation of so-so Shakespeare and one could only ask for one more thing: to have been able to see the real thing in London._____
Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare was shown at the Scotiabank Theatre Toronto, 259 Richmond Street West, Toronto Ontario and other theatres on November 1, 2012. For more information visit http://www.cineplex.com/