‘Timon of Athens’ is not a well-known play. It’s rarely performed and, unlike other plays by Shakespeare, doesn’t have a particularly great record as a masterpiece of dramatic writing. This is why Nicholas Hytner’s production of ‘Timon’ at the National stands out all the more – because it turns this unpopular play into a searing contemporary parable, which for a play written 600 years ago, rings uncomfortably true with issues that most of us often believe relate only to our time.
Hytner sets this production in modernity. It is placed in London, in the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, the swanky clubs of Soho, and the corridors and cabinet rooms of Westminster. Simon Russell Beale inhabits this world like a tailored suit, easing through it with the nonchalance of the rich. His Timon is brilliant to watch – always appearing in a crowd of devoted followers who herald his name, he beams like a lighthouse and seems to take genuine pleasure from constantly giving to the obviously undeserving. The reason for Timon’s generosity, he suggests, is his insecurity: Timon sees his money as a means of maintaining his friends and their ‘loyalty’ – while his followers view his money as part Timon’s substance, making grand declarations of their love for him while all the time pocketing the reward. Timon’s reaction to their avarice when it is finally exposed to him, is perfect, and executed with outstanding wit- when he invites his erstwhile friends to a final dinner party, and serves them plates of shit.
After the first half’s dramatic and tragic fall from grace, the second half does drag a little. Timon’s position as an outcast seems slightly outlandish. Hytner however, solves the problem brilliantly by turning him into a hobo with a trolley who lives in a concrete wasteland that resembles the foundations of a skyscraper- the symbol of the City- synonymous with the excesses of capitalism and the recession. Russell Beale uses the extreme and at times farcical invective of Timon to render his character in a new, completely apposite light. This is the other side of Timon. What happens when he is left alone with himself in the proverbial and physical wilderness? It helps you feel sympathy for a character whom, to some extent, deserves what he receives, but harbours a painfully impotent fury at an unjust world.
There are some suspect moments in the play, notably Timon’s discovery of gold ‘under the city’, but these are side lines to what becomes a wonderful, uncomfortable tale of the emptiness of wealth and the self-destructive nature of relentless consumerism. The supporting performances are uniformly excellent, with Tom Robertson as an hilariously recognisable Ventidius, channelling the ‘Gap Yah’ video on Youtube, and with Deborah Findlay as Timon’s steward giving a beautiful, moving performance, full of pathos as she struggles being good amidst a nest of vipers. Nick Sampson is a fabulously obsequious and constantly drunken poet, who slithers onto the stage, and Ciaran McMenamin is entirely believable as the firebrand Alcibiades, who at the end dons a suit and sits with the politicians, reading Timon’s epitaph in a cynical betrayal of his former ideals for money.
‘Timon of Athens’ is never going to be one of my favourite plays. Shakespeare wrote many others that outstrip it in terms of character, dialogue, theme and imagination. Nicholas Hytner’s production however, turns ‘Timon’ from a half-forgotten play into an intriguing, accessible and relevant production that never pulls its punches and provides an eye-opening commentary on the cocoon of money and power that the privileged inhabit – and what happens when reality bites. It is an exceptional production of a difficult play. Go and see it. There will be no regrets.