I went to see the National Theatre Live broadcast of Timon of Athens last night at St. Anthony Main … and settled in with an audience of bardophiles and other cool people (Barbara Berlovitz, Katherine Ferrand, Jon Cranney and Betsy Cussler all spotted in the audience) to watch Simon Russell Beale take on Shakespeare’s odd misanthrope.
First of all, Simon Russell Beale is a heartbreakingly good actor. I wasn’t a huge fan of his Hamlet (mostly the production, not him, necessarily), but the other things I’ve seen him do have been uniformly excellent (he still holds the prize for the most romantic being I have watched on stage as the young poet in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humor at the RSC in 1987)
As Timon, his pain was palpable. This was particularly true in Act II, but even in Act I he showed us a man who was altogether uncomfortable with himself. Even in his most virulent ravings against humanity, all I could see was a man who just wanted to believe he was loved. He made me weep. A lot.
And on a technical level … man can that guy breathe! It was an impressive feat of inspiration-athleticism.
I also learned a lot from the way he structured the text. He rode over a lot of stuff that I would have made more of, but the pace allowed the real jewels to land. It wasn’t that he threw away things into a general wash (nothing-nothing-nothing-something important-nothing-nothing), but he set aside fewer jewels than I perhaps would have chosen. I expect his approach is more effective for the audience than a more studded-with-jewels reading.
The production itself chose to make the play a commentary about modern economic struggles and the London riots.The audience arrived to a stage filled with a tent city, and then the wealthy Athenians strolled through it unaware to arrive at an art gallery with champagne and hors d’oevres (the unveiling of the newly-named Timon Room … adorned with an enormous picture of the suffering Christ, which no one, until Appemantus at the end of the scene, even glanced at).
To facilitate this interpretation, they were very free with the text, and mostly with the character of Alcibiades, who was turned into a young leader of the rebellion, and not acquainted with Timon at all until Act II. Then at the end, he effectively sold out to the Senators for a position of power (and, one assumes, wealth). This was very interesting, and very clear from a story-telling perspective for what they were trying to achieve.
Also of note, they had inserted lines from some other plays. I suspect we may have had some of the Jack Cade rebellion in there, but I can’t be sure. They chose to end the whole thing with “Go we in content, to liberty” … leaving out the “and not to banishment” that completes the couplet in As You Like It. The incomplete couplet and the sudden aura of comedy was very unsettling, and very effective, at least for me.
The production also made the choice that the senators were the same as the guys that Timon asks for money. In my reading of the play, I’ve always assumed that they were two separate groups of people, and that the false friends were on that list of people at the end that were going to venged against. But that is not at all what this production posited.
As a result it was a much, much darker ending that I think the play has on paper … where Alicibiades makes a different choice that is not based on unbridled vengeance and hatred of humanity. That we have some possibility of returning things back to the median of humanity, that Appemantus mentions when he says that Timon was only ever known the extremes.
Speaking of Appemantus, Hilton McCrae was wonderful in the role. I saw him in a couple things when he was a young man playing romantic leads, and he never quite did it for me, but man, was he good in this!
Deborah Findlay, on the other hand, was a little overblown as the steward, which was sad. I like her lot, but I thought that the size she put on for the Olivier stage ending up flattening things out a bit … not as subtle and interesting as her film work has been. But she was still a presence to be reckoned with, certainly.
Some of the younger actors were particularly good, especially the young woman who played Flaminia (I think … one of Timon’s servants, not sure of the name). The indication when she went to ask for money was that “I’ll send Timon a hundred pounds if you sleep with me,” and it was really gross and she played that scene very, very well
Overall a great production, very interesting and effective. And certainly very topical.
A cast of 33 people I believe I counted during curtain call. Oh my Lord! So when the rebels came through they were a real force to be reckoned with on the stage. Even in the Olivier it looked like a lot of people, and that was cool to see. (Perhaps I can achieve the same effect with All’s Well on a smaller stage with 19 actors?)
One choice that I didn’t care for at all was a moment toward the end when Timon instructs the sun to set. They had a hole in the floor where the gold was, that had a glowing yellow light emanating from it. And at that point, Timon held his hands over the hole and the yellow light dimmed and went out. It was very meta and I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean. It was just odd. And I thought it was a little over the top for a production that had otherwise been pretty realistic.
I also missed the presence of nature in Act II. I never got the impression, as much as Timon had text about the sun, and trees, and the sea and roots in the ground that there was anything growing or stirring in this concrete jungle in which he lived. This played into the point that the production was trying to make, but I missed the juxtaposition of human society against the natural world. And a harsh natural world that is in some ways the enemy to humanity, but the only world with which Timon can commune in the end.