You don’t get many chances to see Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens performed on stage. Regarded as difficult, problematic, and anyway co-written with Thomas Middleton, the play only found its way into the First Folio in 1623 by chance and is rarely performed, so we made a visit to the current National Theatre production the centrepiece of a trip to London this weekend.
This production comes trailed in garlands – for Nicholas Hytner’s direction – which gives the play a vividly contemporary setting in today’s divided London, brilliantly realised in Tim Hatley’s design – and especially Simon Russell Beale’s performance in the title role.
Hytner transfers the setting from ancient Greece to a present day capital city of wealthy financiers, a fawning cultural elite and streets where the poor and dispossessed are angry and turbulent. As the play begins, we glimpse an Occupy-style tent-city before a revolving stage whisks us to the opening of an opulent and palatial new gallery wing – the Timon Room – where Timon the benefactor basks in sycophantic adulation. The room is dominated by the El Greco painting that depicts Christ driving the money changers from the Temple, an ironic reinforcement of the point, as Michael Billington put it in The Guardian, that:
Hytner is … at pains to remind us that Timon’s ruination is part of a larger crisis in capitalism and, utilising the play’s Athenian background, shows angry crowds occupying the squares and streets. All this gives the play a sense of contemporary urgency.
This approach – apparently strengthened by some significant editing and rewriting of the original text, even adding lines from other Shakespeare plays, undoubtedly makes the production powerfully topical. But, though neither of us had any knowledge of the play beforehand, by the end of the play it seemed to us that the authors’ original intention was less a critique of social divisions and more a satire on hypocrisy.
Wealthy, friend to the rich and powerful, patron of the arts, munificent host, Timon showers gifts on the city’s elite. But, we very soon realise that he has vastly outspent his resources. During a lavish banquet, Timon’s steward Flavius (here transposed to Deborah Findlay’s genuinely loyal and concerned Flavia) reveals that Timon is bust:
His promises fly so beyond his state
That what he speaks is all in debt; he owes
For every word: he is so kind that he now
Pays interest for ‘t; his land’s put to their books.
When Timon realises his predicament he calls upon his fawning fair-weather friends. But, instead of offering help, they turn their backs on him. The first half ends with Timon staging a final, vengeful banquet, at which he calls ‘each man to his stool’, presenting them with a covered dish which, when revealed, turns out to be excrement. His rich guests flee in revulsion as Timon rails:
Live loathed and long,
Most smiling, smooth, detested parasites,
Courteous destroyers, affable wolves, meek bears,
You fools of fortune, trencher-friends, time’s flies,
Cap and knee slaves, vapours, and minute-jacks!
In a programme essay, Peter Holland notes the strangeness of the play’s title: not The Tragedy of Timon of Athens, but simply Timon of Athens. Shakespeare’s tragedies usually end in death, often involving a goodly number of corpses. But here, although Timon dies towards the end of the play, he dies off-stage and in unexplained circumstances, though possibly suicide. Tragedies also require a tragic figure, one whose nobility is brought to ruin. But there is no back-story to Timon: we know nothing about him beyond what we see in these halls amidst the flatterers.
What is problematic about the play is its abrupt change of gear in the final two acts when Timon withdraws from the city to a inhabit a literal and emotional wasteland. In the text he lives off roots; in Hytner’s production he ends up a pathetic vagrant, pushing a supermarket trolley, scavenging for food among the detritus of the city. But more problematic than this material shift is the sudden transformation of Timon’s generosity of spirit into an absolute hatred of mankind. As Peter Holland writes, ‘his absolute generosity metamorphoses into his absolute hatred; philanthropy becomes misanthropy with almost no pause between. Timon departs the city for the wilds where thinks he shall find
‘the unkindest beast more kinder than mankind’, and where he expects
his hate may grow
To the whole race of mankind, high and low!
The cynic Apemantus sums up the change:
The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the
extremity of both ends
‘Money can’t buy me love’, sang The Beatles, but Timon, in his pomp, had begged to differ, using his wealth to gather friends around him: at the play’s opening he had remarked, ‘there’s none can truly say he gives, if he receives’. But now he rails:
Who dares, who dares,
In purity of manhood stand upright,
And say ‘This man’s a flatterer?’ if one be,
So are they all; for every grise of fortune
Is smooth’d by that below: the learned pate
Ducks to the golden fool: all is oblique;
There’s nothing level in our cursed natures,
But direct villany. Therefore, be abhorr’d
All feasts, societies, and throngs of men!
It is the brilliance of Simon Russell-Beale’s portrayal that binds together the two halves of this production and makes something credible of Timon’s psychology. In the first half he portrays Timon not as some Christ-like benefactor, but as an individual who is almost simple-minded in his failure to see through the flattery of others, whose vanity is stoked by the love which others affect to show. In The Guardian, Michael Billington spoke of:
…. the psychological acuity of Russell Beale’s performance. His beaming, bounteous, besuited Timon is always seen in a crowd, suggesting that his philanthropy is a form of vanity. He also backs neurotically away when anyone tries to kiss or touch him, as if unused to the demands of intimacy.
Friendship, in this world, is a commodity to be purchased; and it makes total sense that, when Timon is finally exposed to the ingratitude of his followers, he summons them to an anti-banquet where he offers them plates of excrement.
The cynic Apemantus is quick to observe what is going on at the start:
….. I should
ne’er flatter thee. O you gods, what a number of
men eat Timon, and he sees ’em not! It grieves me
to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood;
and all the madness is, he cheers them up too.
I wonder men dare trust themselves with men:
Methinks they should invite them without knives;
Good for their meat, and safer for their lives.
For me, one of the highlights of this production was the Beckett-like interplay between Apemantus (played with trenchant Scots sardonicism by Hilton McRae) and Timon as he sifts through the city’s rubbish:
Apemantus: Why this spade? this place?
This slave-like habit? and these looks of care?
Thy flatterers yet wear silk, drink wine, lie soft;
Hug their diseased perfumes, and have forgot
That ever Timon was. Shame not these woods,
By putting on the cunning of a carper.
Be thou a flatterer now, and seek to thrive
By that which has undone thee: hinge thy knee,
And let his very breath, whom thou’lt observe,
Blow off thy cap; praise his most vicious strain,
And call it excellent …. Do not assume my likeness.
Timon: Were I like thee, I’d throw away myself.
The play is really a jaundiced anthem of despair at the hollow nature of society and man. But threaded through it is a political rebellion that brings to mind Coriolanus in its portrayal of the mob disturbing the equilibrium of the city. However, the same sceptical perspective applies here, too: the rebel leader Alcibiades is bought off by the establishment’s offer of power and wealth.
Bought off: Karl Marx, writing about ‘The Power of Money’ in Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 quoted Timon’s words in the second part upon discovering gold in the rubbish he is sifting for food:
This yellow slave
Will knit and break religions, bless the accursed,
Make the hoar leprosy adored, place thieves
And give them title, knee and approbation
With senators on the bench
Shakespeare, he argues, ‘excellently depicts the real nature of money’ in capitalist society:
It is the visible divinity – the transformation of all human and natural properties into their contraries, the universal confounding and distorting of things: impossibilities are soldered together by it.
It is the common whore, the common procurer of people and nations.
Athens was not a capitalist society, but the people in the play are either noble and wealthy or part of the servant class dependent on the rich. As depicted by Shakespeare and Middleton, it is, as Peter Holland observes,
a society of exchange and gift, of conspicuous consumption and equally conspicuous patronage. None of the wealthy shows any signs of work; they simply have money. And, as Marx knew well, it is money that acts as the linkage …that brings people together.
No surprise, then, that Nicholas Hytner saw the time was timely for a revival of this overlooked play in a production whose performances and set design plant it firmly in the London of now.
In this YouTube video from the National Theatre, Simon Russell Beale and dramaturg Ben Power discuss the character of Timonand what makes him an unusual tragic protagonist.
He doesn’t understand love. He thinks love is money.
Making of Timon: Staging the Play