November 2, 2012, by Peter Kirwan
Timon of Athens (National Theatre/NT Live) @ The Broadway Cinema, Nottingham
As has been the case for certain previous NT Live productions, tonight’s broadcast of Timon of Athens marked the end of a lengthy and critically acclaimed run for a major National Theatre production. The use of the live broadcast format as valediction as well as product extension was explicitly referred to by the ever-present Emma Freud, in her opening comment that before the production was put to its long sleep at the evening’s end, it would have a final showing to tens of thousands of viewers around the Globe. For a play so maligned and rarely performed, its presence at the centre of a major international cultural event might be seen as a watershed moment, a major reclamation of the play by the UK theatrical establishment.Given an introductory film (an ongoing complaint of mine, with the patronising effect of explaining to the provincial audience how we are meant to read what we are about to see) that even treated the issue of collaboration as a positive one, in which Thomas Middleton brought his expertise as a master of city satire to the play’s benefit, acted to ‘canonise’ ideas that are too often pushed to the fringes of discussion.
Yet Nicholas Hytner’s production did not only serve to bring back to the fold a neglected play, but also daringly placed a critique of cultural institutions at the heart of an institutional cultural event. Reviews and blogs have much discussed the opening of the modern-set production, in which Simon Russell-Beale’s Timon is hosting a canape and champagne reception to mark the opening of ‘The Timon Room’ at a prestigious art gallery. As the insightful Paul Mason (Newsnight’s Economic Editor) argued in an introductory documentary, contemporary London runs on a brown-nosing, socialising, gift-giving capitalist system. Big businesses and politicians meet at sponsored cultural events, turning the arts themselves into a form of capital exchange and appropriating culture for material gain. This Timon for our age began with men in suits and women in glamorous dresses marched through a set of poor tents, evoking the daily image of bankers skirting the edges of the St. Paul’s Occupy protest. As they reached the front of the stage, the walls of the gallery were flown in from the rafters, cutting off the tents. The protests were thus obscured for the entire first half of the play-set in a succession of glass-walled offices, luxury bachelor pads and banqueting rooms-yet could periodically be heard, clamouring in the distance and undercutting the awful guffawing of the rich suits who dominated the stage.
The sympathies of the production were not hard to see, as a truly hideous procession of sycophants began showing their true colours. In the early banqueting scenes, Beale’s Timon was often literally spun around by the well-wishers clamouring for his attention, he moving in a giddy whirl with a hopeful grin on his face. The suitors, meanwhile, screamed and roared, holding up glasses, crying out in delight at the gifts they were given and applauding/complaining as the situation demanded. The sight of the wealthy falling over themselves to greet the two spectacular dancers who entertained the banquet directly spoke to the appropriation of the arts as a form of social prestige. The air kissing, the braying, the back-slapping drew on the worst characteristics of the privileged classes and their self-serving circles.
Yet as Timon’s fortunes took a turn for the worse, we began seeing the individuals behind the group dynamic, and Hytner drew out the ugliness in an excellent sequence of scenes where Timon’s servants approached previous beneficiaries for support. Olivia Llewellyn’s Flaminia was subjected to a deeply uncomfortable interview with the slick, older Lucullus (Paul Bentall) who initially showed disappointment at the lack of a gift, then presented the young girl with a glass of champagne and sidled up close to her on the sofa, to audible disgust from the audience around me. His sickening disdain for her as she jumped up and refused him, calling her a fool, cut right through the facades to the ugliness under these characters. Then we were treated to the quite wonderful Tom Robertson as Ventidius, an Etonian oik with a level of affectation bordering on the cartoonish. Lounging on primary-coloured furniture and surrounded by artists and a gaggle of admiring women, Ventidius hosted Tim Samuels’s Servilius with a poor grace, his smarm dropping in something approaching shame as his earlier boasts of generosity were proven false. The camera intelligently picked up on the raised eyebrows of the Poet and Painter, witnesses to his lies. Samuels drained his drink and left with dignity.
The contrast between loyal, put-upon servants and self-seeking capitalists became more pointed as the first half drew to its close, and shortly after the interval as the servants boxed up the last of Timon’s belongings and left the building (the cardboard boxes, of course, evoking nothing so much as the collapse of Lehman Brothers). The suitors, meanwhile, were thrown out on their ears after being served faeces under silver lunch dishes, which Timon smeared madly across the heads of several of the men. Timon’s ‘grace’, turning into a full-on denunciation of his ‘friends’, was one of Beale’s finest moments, turning the social situation on its head and single-handedly destroying the edifice that he had constructed.
Beale’s performance was extraordinary. In a demanding role (the RSC edition suggests that he speaks 34% of the play’s lines), Beale found an exciting rendition of Timon as a man who simply did not understand love. Dependent on his ability to give gifts and his childish, pathetic need to repay everything tenfold in order to delight in immediate adulation, it was immediately obvious that he was there to be taken advantage of. His generosity was compulsive rather than genuine, his gifts thrown out at a whim and in a frenzy of momentum (particularly as he tossed away his prize stallion). It was in the interruption of that momentum that we saw Timon fall apart, as he was forced to confront the debt-collectors and reporters who blocked his front door. Spinning again, but now in pain rather than in joy, he lashed out at people, threw away the bills and hurled a photographer’s camera against a wall. This whirling energy finally spilled over in the last banquet scene, which ended with Timon alone onstage, burned out.
As we moved into the play’s second half, Beale moved from being the dominant character to being largely the only character. The parable element of the play’s construction was brought to the fore as Timon stayed onstage almost continuously, visited by a succession of faces. Many of these rehearsed earlier themes, particularly in the thieves who roughed Timon up for some of his discovered gold, and the Poet and Painter who Timon ultimately chased out with an axe. These interlopers were entering the seediest areas of London’s cardboard cities, in which Timon pushed about a trolley laden with scraps and ate out of used KFC buckets. Railing, bitter, suicidal in his despondency, Beale’s performance did not attempt to drive a narrative but rather responded to a series of semi-abstract questions. These were most brilliantly raised by Hilton McRae’s acerbic Apemantus, who trod a difficult line between humour and frank unpleasantness. There was a compassion to this performance that responded well to the humanity at the centre of Beale’s Timon, and Apemantus’ plea for balance rather than extremes was delivered with a regret that elevated the observation beyond the merely cynical.
It’s perhaps inevitable that the second half of Timon loses a certain amount of momentum, and some of the weaker elements of the production became apparent when narrative was replaced by dialogue. A surprising weak link was Deborah Findlay’s Flavia. The constant presence of the loyal servant was valuable structurally, but the unmodulated delivery rendered her scenes dull, and the character seemed inconsistently divided between criticism and compassion for Timon. The other female characters apart from Flaminia were similarly poorly served, and the long dialogue between Timon and the prostitutes seemed particularly forced. The constant holding these scenes together remained Beale, whose genial physicality belied his acerbic language throughout. His ability to sit on a crate and gently confide in someone that they were society’s disease retained something of his earlier social unease, but now with the protective cushion of an exchange system removed.
The other casualty of the modern setting was Alcibiades (Ciaran McMenamin), though this was to the production’s benefit. With the Occupy resonances established early on, the relative facelessness of the rioting underclass served as an ominous threat throughout the first half, the bankers and socialites nervously peering out of the windows and wondering what this meant. At the conclusion of the first half, we saw the ejected diners stranded in the street and surrounded by hooded protesters bearing baseball bats, who set upon them with gusto. The physical threat of these anti-capitalist protesters (timely also in relation to the recent The Dark Knight Rises and similar films) was introduced effectively. Yet in the second half, with Alcibiades leading in a rabble of protesters and becoming visible as a spokesman and rally-leader, we began seeing something more of the complexities of this group. As with the Batman movie, this production both championed and cynically deconstructed its Occupy avatars. What began as an apparently ethics-driven protest against the caricatured 1% quickly became muddied, as the protesters appeared in hoods and masks, costumes more pointedly reminiscent of the London rioters than conscientious protesters. The immediate violence against the ejected diners turned them immediately into a threat, and the individual motivations were then questioned further as the rabble encountered Timon. The initially aggressive and dismissive mob prostrated themselves before Timon as he began throwing money at them, revealing their motives as fundamentally profit-driven even as they sought to bring down the system. In the final scene, based around a conference table, Alcibiades and two fellow protesters engaged in a series of snapshot meetings with the City suits who ran the system. In the final shot, Alcibiades appeared in a sharp suit, welcomed into the fold as a new leader of the City, whose first task was to address a media conference with news of Timon’s death.
The cynicism of the production about the motives of the 99% as well as the 1% meant this was a bleak reading of a bleak play, where even Alcibiades’ ascent acted as a consolidation of the hierarchical system rather than a challenge to it. Instead, Hytner concentrated on a lucid, entertaining and clear portrayal of the effects of a system of consumption on an individual who only knew how to take. As Beale’s Timon was drained of everything, he finally slipped into the unknown, the lights fading down on him as he prepared for his grave. The cyclical nature of the system implied by the production’s close, however, suggests that this is a play not only for now but for the immediate future, with Timon implied as just one of the statistics of a system that continues to abandon those with nothing left to give.