October 25, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Timon Of Athens (Cardboard Citizens) @ The Shakespeare Centre

Coming up the stairs of the Shakespeare Centre, we were all given a badge and asked to fill in our name, job title and salary bracket. Then, escorted into a room decorated for a corporate training event, we were fed gold chocolate bars, made comfortable and treated to a series of motivational speeches and powerpoint presentations on the usefulness of Shakespeare’s plays as life management lectures. This, then, was Cardboard Citizens’ take on ‘Timon of Athens’.

Cardboard Citizens are a group who work with homeless artists on theatre that’s very socially aware- director Adrian Jackson works closely with Augusto Boal and shares ideologies with the Theatre of the Oppressed- and their take on ‘Timon’ was fresh and quite exciting. Taking the idea that it is an unfinished play, the script featured numerous insertions of “business speak”, autobiography, videos of real people and observations on the action. Timon’s story became that of a man dispossessed by a thankless society and fickle friends, and his world was literally torn apart for the second act as he set himself up as a homeless man on the shore.

This was an adaptation of the play rather than a straight reading, taking many liberties with the text. At its heart, though, Shakespeare was the controlling factor, with the “company slogan” reading “Where there’s WILL, there’s a WAY”. The key line was, “Who can speak broader than he that has no house to put his head in? Such may rant against great buildings?”, and taking the text from this angle saw the play claimed with confidence by the company, brought to poignant effect as scenes of Timon’s decline and stubborn reluctance to help himself were cut with video of an old squatter standing firm again his local council and ultimately being evicted.

Three different actors played Timon at different stages of his decline, all stripping down to underwear as his life went to pot, standing in sharp decline to the corporate suits, plush carpets and plates of Ferrer Rochet that added colour to his happier days. An eclectic mix of accents and nationalities among the cast gave the text a unique voice, and the juxtaposition of modern and Shakespearean dialogue meant that the play as a whole became Cardboard Citizens’.

An interactive approach that saw the audience shuffled between different rooms in the Centre, given lines and drawn into heckling, kept everyone involved in what was going on. This was immediate theatre, performed on a small stage where the front rows had to pull in their knees to let the performers past. It also made the violence of some moments- the pelting of the friends with faeces and urine, and the destroying of the furniture- very immediate.

The quality of acting varied, but this wasn’t a play about acting- it was about storytelling. Even the weaker actors brought a grit and passion to their roles that brought home the truth the company had found in this story of the dispossessed. The final moments, as the company stood united while a video showed a man walking into the ocean until his head disappeared under the waves, were incredibly moving- and ‘Timon’ isn’t a play that often moves.

Far more so than Nos do Morro’s ‘Two Gentlemen Of Verona’, this felt like a community theatre piece that had truly fitted itself to its venue and to its purpose. It was fully committed and, without wanting to sound too cheesy, incredibly enlightening- some early observations on our ability to decide for ourselves whether to let our disappointments consume us or to simply get on with life particularly resounded for me. It is evenings like this that remind me of why I love theatre so much- because regardless of pedigree or money, a good show can touch people with a truth that you simply can’t get in the real world. Shows with a ‘message’ can often be excruciating, but ‘Timon’ managed to be funny, entertaining, moving and thought-provoking. I’ll be VERY interested to see the reviews!

Posted in Theatre review