The RSC’s high-tech Tempest: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together

The RSC’s high-tech <em>Tempest</em>: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together

Another splendid evening this week in our local Picturehouse last week watching the RSC’s dazzling staging of The Tempest, featuring magnificent and memorable performances by Simon Russell Beale as Prospero and Mark Quartley as Ariel. This is the production that utilises performance capture technology from Imaginarium Studios to render Ariel’s animated avatar live in three dimensions on the Stratford stage. Brilliant as the special effects were, it was the acting which held us spellbound. Continue reading “The RSC’s high-tech Tempest: acting, poetry and technology spellbind together”

Timon of Athens: love is money

Timon of Athens: love is money

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

See also

The Deep Blue Sea

‘Beware of passion, Hester; it always leads to something ugly’

Last night I saw the new film version of  the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea, directed by own Liverpudlian auteur, Terence Davies.  Although it had its merits, and despite being a great admirer of Davies’ previous work, this film failed to stir my soul as much as I had anticipated from reading the critics’ reviews.

The Deep Blue Sea is a film that has all the distinctive Davies characteristics: lovingly and beautifully photographed in soft focus, with the camera lingering on surfaces and reflections and searching out oases of light in deep shadow.  At the start of Rattigan’s play the  central character Hester has just attempted suicide by turning on the gas in her flat, and thereafter the stage action never leaves the flat. Davies breaks out of this restriction, and the best part of the film is the  ten minute prelude, a largely wordless series of flashbacks illuminating moments in her troubled relationships that lead up to Hester’s suicide attempt.  It’s vintage Davies: highly-charged emotionally, the emotions  heightened by music not words (in this case, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto flooding the soundtrack).

The story concerns Hester, a passionate woman (played by Rachel Weisz), married to a kindly but dull judge (Simon Russell-Beale) who breaks the bounds of early 1950s British social respectability in order to live in the moment and pursue her overwhelming passion for a dashing Battle of Britain pilot (Tom Hiddleston). Terence Davies mise-en-scene provides a resonant evocation of post-war Britain where attempted suicide was still a crime and a judge’s wife could not leave her husband for a younger man without incurring disgrace and condemnation.

Rachel Weisz and Simon Russell-Beale give terrific performances, yet I found the three central figures unconvincing. Weisz seemed too young and bursting with suppressed libido for a woman used to a dull life married life to a fust, middle-aged judge. While Tom Hiddleston’s Freddie seemed lightweight and juvenile. I didn’t find Davies’ community singalong scenes – one on an Underground platform in the Blitz, the other in a pub where the regulars belt out a hearty chorus of ‘You Belong to Me’ before it fades into the Jo Stafford recording – convincing either. In his great Liverpool films (Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes) scenes of communal singing were a way to give the working class characters a voice that lifted them beyond the restrictions of their daily lives. Here it just seems mannered.

But my main response to this film is that, beyond the first half hour, it was just plain dull.  I couldn’t feel engaged with the upper class characters, and the final scene in which Hester and Tom part for the last time, seemed to drag on interminably, with long silences between their words.  I felt like shouting, ‘Just go, for God’s sake!’

Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea

I don’t know How much this has to do with Terence Rattigan’s original play, which I haven’t seen.  Rattigan’ss forte was an upper class world of understated emotions, yet in recent years his reputation, which sank under the impact of the kitchen sink dramas of the late 1950s, has been on the rise again, and he is now regarded as one of Britain’s finest dramatists.  I’m of the generation that was greatly affected by the screen versions of two of his plays – The Winslow Boy,based on the true story of a father’s fight to clear his son’s name after the boy is expelled from Naval College for stealing a five-shilling postal order; and The Browning Version, in which a classics teacher approaching retirement from a career at a British public school comes to term with his life and its failures.

Writing in The Telegraph, Simon Heffer presented this appreciation of Rattigan:

Rattigan wrote five or six of the finest films ever made in this country, and in this important year for him and his reputation we should remember that too.

Three of his screenplays of his own stage works stick in my mind: The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea. He also helped out on Graham Greene’s treatment of his novel Brighton Rock, and he wrote two other stunning screenplays: The Way to the Stars in 1945, and The Sound Barrier in 1953. They all have something in common: they all – including The Winslow Boy, which is set at the close of the Edwardian era – are perfect representations of the values, attitudes and conflicts of their age. But they are a representation of the values, attitudes and conflicts of the refined, well-to-do, middle and upper-middle classes: and this, in 1956, would be Rattigan’s undoing. […]

Rattigan wrote about the intensity of feeling – whether it be about injustice, marital infidelity or sheer loneliness and absorption in one’s work – that sometimes comes in to all our lives; but his characters dealt with it within the confines of their class and their times, and did so with a literate originality. […]

His characters are the masters of the clipped accent, the raised eyebrow, but also harbour the volcanic passions that lie beneath the sang-froid of the English personality. Writing at his peak in the immediate post-war period, Rattigan captured an aspect of the times perfectly, and held up the mirror to a distinct section of society. This went down exceptionally well with both audiences and critics, until John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger went on in the same year as Suez.

The Deep Blue Sea was first performed in 1952, and in writing it, Rattigan was reportedly inspired by the suicide of a young male actor with whom he had at one time had a relationship. The play was recently revived at the Chichester Festival Theatre to great critical acclaim.

It’s been 11 years since the last fiction film made by Terence Davies. That was was The House of Mirth, based on Edith Wharton’s novel.  Although set some 50 years apart, they have a lot in common: a proud, passionate woman falling foul of social laws, and a trenchant view of moralising respectability.

Terence Davies talks about adapting The Deep Blue Sea


See also