Timon of Athens is indeed a tale for our times. The story of an Athenian noble, who may or may not be lavishing funds on civic projects out of sheer good will, is relevant in the post-financial crash world. The way he is callously shunned by his city after losing his fortune is probably (at least in their minds) how many of the hedge fund city Lehmann types feel today.
Simon Russell Beale in the title role is simply superb. He is one of Britain’s leading theatre actors, and grasps this role with relish. His modern portrayal of Timon sees him live in and with the best and the worst of London’s elite. The production, directed by Nick Hytner, starts off with Timon's lavishly attending a ceremony, and during the first half he is always surrounded by lackeys, staff and assistants as well as the obligatory sharks and artists trying to get some money from him. The contrast with his suddenly living alone and lost to himself is a good one, and serves as a key point of Shakespeare’s text.
Hynter tries his best to make the contrasting fortunes of Timon obvious by shifting the narrative somewhat so there is ‘before’ and ‘after’ regarding Timon’s fortunes. Hynter’s contrast is most obvious in the staging. The opulence, wealth, attention to detail visible in the first half is stripped to its absolute minimum in the second. Beale goes from robes to rags and is dressed like a tramp, though not a very effective looking tramp--one that looks terribly fake and contrived. However, going from seeing him always surrounded to suddenly alone is the most telling way Hynter and Beale make Timon's change in fortune apparent.
The real genius of Beale’s performance comes from his tenacity and the way he interacts with other people in his cardboard city. After losing his money, he performs and paces in a way surprisingly similar to how he was before, and quickly becomes top tramp in the gutter. The finery and wealth are all gone, yet the same ferociousness and leadership is just as present as it was at the start. Beale’s self hatred is fantastic to watch as he scrapes through rubbish piles and discarded food. The way he uses his philanthropic skills for evil after finding some gold (paying the rebels to pillage the city and the prostitutes to spread STIs) is a genius part of the text. The anti-banquet again is foreshadowed by the lavish one we see in the first half; however, plates of dung are served up as Timon makes his loathing known.
Some of this modernising agenda simply does not work. The rebels of Alcibiades are not a politically adept and scheming group, but a rag tag group of anti-capitalist Occupy types, and as such the famous politicking and court intrigue elements are lost, with events simplified perhaps too much. This is enhanced by the ending. Timon’s death is not given the attention or reverence deserved and is treated as a sideshow. By casting Alcibiades as a protestor with some strong ideals, watching his ascension to the Athenian elite is simply unrealistic, confusing and a major flaw. Hynter’s theme is one of power corrupting and examining what happens to a person when they collapse, but by hinting of a cycle, that Alcibiades could become the next Timon after an inevitable crash seems to show nothing has been learnt.
The supporting cast do well and are competent, yet do not have any real chance to shine as individuals. Apemantus, the snide commenting philosopher’s role is stripped down to one of pure cynicism, lacking in the kind of realpolitik and involvement you get from a Cicero or even a Falstaff figure. Nonetheless Hilton McRae does this repositioning justice and provides a great commentary on wider events throughout. Timon’s steward is turned in to a woman and Deborah Findlay’s portrayal is very simply a show in loyalty and virtue, which as a contrast is again overdone.
The production elements are plausible and convincing, yet not remarkable. Costumes and jewellery seem too over done as did the outfits of the protesters and tramps with whom Timon finds himself living. Sound is kept low key and only really helps emphasise his loneliness, as does the lighting which goes from bright and garish to almost non-existent and moody.
The play is a great and timely examination of the individual relationship people have with wealth, and Hynter makes it strikingly clear how our attitudes have not changed over the centuries.