Review – Timon of Athens, National Theatre

Monday 16 July 2012

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?



13 Responses to “Review – Timon of Athens, National Theatre”

  1. Colin Vaines Says:

    The off-stage rattle of a shopping trolley’s wheels never fails to strike fear into me when attending contemporary Shakespeare productions. The fancy schmancy Denzel Washington Julius Caesar on Broadway some years ago had this “cutting edge” element. I ended up worrying more about whether the wheels would lock or the steering would go spastic than the fate of old Julius.

  2. Poly Gianniba Says:

    Timon should be rhyming with semen (in so many ways), take that from a Greek. And don’t start me on Antigone.

  3. Tim Sutton Says:

    The answer is Nutella

  4. Kevin Wildman Says:

    Sorry for typo – Beckham…

  5. Sandown Says:

    There is no real scholarly evidence that Shakespeare collaborated with Thomas Middleton in writing this play.

    What has happened is that the Oxford University Press spent a lot of money on a new edition of Middleton’s Collected Works (price £125.00). Naturally the editors have tried to plug their boy into every possible socket.

    The NT appear to have gone along with this, even ascribing their recent production of Cyril Tourneur’s play “The Revenger’s Tragedy” to Middleton.

    And you can buy the Collected Works in the NT bookshop.

  6. eekahil Says:

    Poly Gianniba – please, do start with how you pronounce Antigone. I’m curious.

  7. Jonathon Says:

    Thanks for the review, we expected the 2nd half to be hard work and therefore we really enjoyed it!

  8. Baldassaro Says:

    I saw it with two Shakespearean scholars, who’d edited an edition of the play. Their assessment of it was much the same as the Whingers’: good first half, well played; followed by a second half which made the best of poor material. Profs and Whingers in perfect accord – who’d a thunk it?…

  9. Jim Says:

    ToA was on at the Globe a couple of years ago. So not so hard for completists. I’m now only missing King John (which is rare) and the three Henry VI’s.

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