So, on vellum then, not looking too promising.
Rarely performed and generally considered to be one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, Timon of Athens has had just one outing on The Broadway, according to the gospel of St Wiki.
Apparently it was co-authored by Thomas Middleton and is incomplete. Who knows? (Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance probably).
Two of them writing together and they couldn’t finish it? Was there a more pressing stack of ironing? Sounds scarily familiar to us. Unfinished is a bit of a conundrum: might it go on forever or end abruptly in under three hours? TOA sounded a bit of a tease.
So let’s dispense with some good news first.
It came in at just over two and a half hours at this early preview. Shakespeare and Middleton didn’t get around to writing tedious subplots on this one (hurrah!) or possibly they’ve been filleted out. Its story of a patron of the arts (Timon) who throws money around, living well beyond his means follows a direct course without hesitation or deviation. Perhaps Middleton (uncredited on the cover and title page of the programme*) or whoever tweaked it (director Nicholas Hytner and dramaturg Ben Power?) with a few bits from other Shakespeare plays was/is/are a good editor/s?
Excessive expenditure and descent into poverty – how could it not be performed in a contemporary setting? With an Olympic nod Athens becomes London in this production and of course the same rules of profligacy and its consequences might apply. Or you could just hit us over the head with the First Folio.
But there were also lessons to be learnt, about pronunciation rather than consumerism. For the record Phil had been unaware that Timon should be rhyming Simon (as in Russell Beale) and not semen.
TOA kicks off at the glitzy opening of a new gallery – looking suspiciously like the National’s Sainsbury Wing – with an Occupy London-style protest grumbling outside. After generously gifting his hangers-on at the lavish post-opening celebratory banquet and entertaining them with a tediously spurious ballet sequence (sadly not SRB in a tutu, but guest dancers from the Royal Ballet), Timon finds himself destitute. Hytner has opted for clarity, thankfully: you know Ti is on his uppers when his steward/PA Flavia (Deborah Findlay in a rather thankless gender-switched role) turns up carrying a shopping bag from a down-market retailer. Flavia’s gone to Iceland.
When Timon asks for help from the people he’s previously splashed the cash on he is rejected, so he exacts revenge serving them another feast with a less than amusing amuse-bouche (SPOILER ALERT. Horribly convincing turds from the props department. What could they be made of?)
The post-interval world into which Timon retreats comes in fifty shades of grey with the occasional gold accent. His wilderness is represented by a building site (Tim Hatley designs) with unfinished concrete pillars with steel reinforcing rods sticking out of them – a waggish nod to Greece that also encourages some musing on the National Theatre’s own construction. Not much to distract from the drear here. The set is strewn with bin liners and rubbish. Social unrest comes in the guise of hoodies lurking ominously and SRB pushes a shopping trolley. What is it with the National and hoodies and shopping trolleys?
How Russell Beale must be looking forward to Christmas when he will take on a more glamorous role, fannying around in Privates on Parade with a basket of five-a-day on his head. Destitution sees him in scruffs and a woolly hat. Well done if you can get the image of Compo from Last of the Summer Wine out of your head. Phil couldn’t.
So after a reasonably absorbing first half it all becomes a bit of a chore. SRB blusters engagingly throughout extracting humour where possible, even when his newly-discovered misanthropy comes to the fore. Nick Sampson, as ever, deserves special mention for providing added light relief as a poet and Hilton McRae as Timon’s stalwart buddy Apemantus underplays nicely.
Unusually for a tragedy there’s only one death and it happens off stage. What a swizz.
Perhaps the audience found some of the text easier to understand than the less scholarly among us as they applauded wildly at the end, especially when knight-in-waiting SRB took his curtain call. Some – who presumably missed it on The Broadway – even ovated. Perhaps it was relief that it was all over.
So Problem Play not quite solved. It’s not hard to see why it’s getting an airing now but some of it is hard work.
On the plus side, it’s another ticked off the list and worth a visit for Shakespeare completists. It may never raise its rather odd head during your lifetime again. It certainly won’t in Phil’s.
Yes, we know we often moan about the National’s posters but considerable effort has been made on this one. Alison Jackson has provided yet another of her lookee likees snaps. Madonna, Corrie’s Dennis Tanner, Jim Carrey and Camilla dine with a very convincing SRB doppelgänger. Is it suggesting that these celebrities are money-grabbing hangers-on?