Timon of Athens, The Globe, 1 June 2012
Everyone loves a party, particularly one that starts with a hearty welcome. “Willkommen bei Timons Fest!” repeated our genial host (Michael Meyer) as he wandered the stage in tailcoat and sandals greeting the arriving audience as his guests. At his behest, Flaminius (Erika Spalke) scurried around offering people free programmes.
This major reworking by the Bremer Shakespeare Company in modern German began by making the audience complicit in the ensuing action. We were the throng of festive invitees that would enjoy Timon’s hospitality but eventually abandon him.
This, more than any other factor, gave the production contemporary relevance. The performance was not even a comment about the Eurozone crisis: with the whole audience complicit, it was about the immediate present.
His principal guests on stage also wore tailcoat and sandals. They drew on what looked like champagne corks as if they were cigars. This clever substitution saw one high-life accessory represented by another item with identical connotations.
A large artwork was being prepared by the Artist, painted onto a plastic sheet stretched over a large round object, which later turned out to be a trampoline.
As the party got underway, Timon tried to give an opening speech to complete his welcome, but was constantly interrupted by new demands on his generosity.
Ventidius (Gunnar Haberland) entered in shackles, which Timon examined closely before saying he would pay the man’s bail. Flaminius muttered under her breath that he should not disburse the sum. She moved around the stage lying flat on a trolley, sliding through people’s legs and under the trampoline.
When questioned about his finances, Timon assured: “I have the money, if not I’ll take out a loan – just joking.” His “we are born to do benefits” was translated as “wir sind dazu geboren Gutes zu tun” and became his catchphrase when questioned about his lavish philanthropy.
An old man complained that his daughter wanted to marry a poor man. Timon said he would make the man’s wealth equal to the daughter’s dowry.
Reacting to these constant interruptions to Timon’s opening speech, he complained “Can I finish it for once?”
Actors at the Globe often have to contend with aircraft noise; this night was no exception. But the roar of engines was turned to advantage as Flaminius enquired “Friends of yours, Timon?” implying that the sound resulted from some of his rich guests arriving by private jet.
The production had a female Apemantus (Petra-Janina Schultz) who wore a set of false noses stuck to her face. This and her general demeanour meant that Apemantus was portrayed as a female trickster figure rather than the more usual characterisation of a solemn, male philosopher. She began to look somewhat like Lear’s Fool.
The artwork was removed to reveal the trampoline underneath. Timon and his guests jumped up and down on it. The Artist (Peter Lüchinger) presented his show, moving gracefully in a white face mask to the sound of piano and strings. At the end of the show he fluttered a paper butterfly on a wire rod so that it skipped around Timon.
Alcibiades (Frank Auerbach) was a soldier in a military overcoat, engaged, not in a war, but in a stabilisation operation. The adaptation built on the original’s meat allusion, in which Alcibiades replies to Timon’s reference to a “breakfast of enemies” by saying “…there’s no meat like ’em”, and provided this Alcibiades with a meat fixation.
His conversation revolved around a lengthy description of a recipe involving marinating meat. This fascination and visceral hunger for flesh was a sideways comment on his profession.
Two prostitutes (Erika Spalke and Petra-Janina Schultz again) arrived for one of the guests. They went off stage with their client and moans were heard. Timon reacted calmly saying that the assignation would not take long.
A change of pace in the production came when Apemantus used a megaphone to rumour that Timon had no money. The others walked in a circled and grumbled about Timon’s bankruptcy before using their jackets to hit the trampoline on which Timon stood and then move it to the centre of the stage.
In an attempt to make Timon understand his precarious situation, Flaminius placed her trolley on her lap and flipped open its lid, which bore a pear logo parodying Apple’s iconic logo. She referred to an unseen spreadsheet.
Timon proposed selling some of his land, but was told it had already been sold and that he was bankrupt. This prompted a comic exchange in which Timon said Flaminius was talking nonsense, which his steward immediately gainsaid: in German “Quatsch. Kein Quatsch. Quatsch. Kein Quatsch.”
Flaminius walked on the spot on the trampoline to represent her trip to raise funds from Timon’s friends. His potential benefactors lined up across the stage.
Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” played as a man in pink chiffon draped himself around a pillar (in the original 2010 production he pole-danced); another sat with a blood pressure gauge around his arm and then his neck; one took a swing with a golf club, while yet another posed with a riding crop. The overall effect was to show them as idle wasters. Their responses were provided by a series of voiceovers in which Timon’s so-called friends refused to come to his assistance.
By way of summary, Apemantus sang the introduction to the Beatles “Help!” to the tune of her banjo, offering Timon another sarcastic insight into his situation.
Alcibiades returned and was promptly banned by three of the tailcoated Athenians. This was necessary for plot purposes, but in the context of this contemporary adaptation it looked slightly clumsy.
Timon threw another party and promised his guests a surprise. An old German song on the subject of friendship from the 1930s “Ein Freund, ein guter Freund” played in the background, but the record stuck so that the title words repeated themselves over and over again.
Timon just closed his eyes and listened without correcting the fault.
He had promised his guests a surprise and it came when he turned a pressure washer on them and doused them with water, before chasing them underneath the trampoline. Once the confused partygoers were all huddled behind its transparent plastic skirt, Timon threw some very large rocks at it. They bounced off the thick plastic making a terrific noise.
The guests shrieked with fear at this assault, and were eventually chased out through the yard by Timon brandishing a rock. The trampoline was turned over so that its legs jutted into the air, at which point the interval came.
The second half began with Timon stood by one of the tiring house doors, a spot which served as his seaside cave. At the stage right edge of the thrust, the Artist sat working away at some project. Soil was thrown from behind the tiring house door onto the upstage right corner.
Timon began to rant at the world. He tore off all his clothes and wandered around naked for some time. He tried to eat the soil, but instead of food, he found an ingot of gold within it. A dark back cloth at the back of the stage was pulled away to reveal a bright gold cloth underneath, suggesting the ubiquity of the precious metal.
Flaminius took pity on Timon and folded his discarded shirt into a loincloth that she wrapped around him.
Alcibiades entered in the company of his two courtesans (the two female actors again). One of them nonchalantly threw an instant tent to the ground that automatically unfolded, and after making themselves at home, they flounced around.
Timon encouraged the courtesans to infect as many of their clients as possible. He smeared their faces with the soil as if to symbolise the diseases they carried. But they simply withdrew and sealed themselves up inside the tent.
Offering Alcibiades gold to fund a war against Athens, Timon gleefully encouraged the soldier to spare no one.
Apemantus sat on the balcony with a megaphone and banjo singing “Yesterday” and, true to her trickster characterisation, could not stop laughing.
She used her megaphone to start a rumour that Timon had found gold people came sniffing it out. In this adaptation the bandits were indistinguishable from his former friends. One of them collected gold ingots in a bucket and then tried to lift it, but it was too heavy. Timon sat on top of the bucket to prevent the people from emptying it of its gold.
The passage where Timon speaks of Apemantus’ “beastly ambition” was turned into a series of appearances by characters wearing animal masks, introduced by Timon. He constantly reminded us that “Der Mensch ist ein Tier/Man is an animal”. A lamb was chased away by a big bad wolf, a lion was proclaimed the king of the beasts and a fox stood and nodded his head from side to side in time with the jaunty music, followed by a tiger and a snake.
Timon called on the audience to help themselves to his wealth. Responding to this appeal, a man in the front row of the middle gallery tried to climb over the balcony. With one hand he grasped the wooden railing; with the other, a plastic beer glass. Lucullus Ventidius (or was it Gunnar Haberland breaking out of character?) came forward and said he wanted to use the gold to buy the man. As the adventurer climbed back behind the safety of the railing, Timon commented that he had now found the audience’s level.
The Artist rose from where he had been sitting all this while and intervened to address the audience. He told us that we were meant to be creative and handed out paper and pencils. He talked of making a social sculpture, a concept which Apemantus mocked by striking a ballet pose and commenting that she made herself into a social sculpture.
Alcibiades entered through yard with a shopping trolley, which he carried up the steps on to the stage. He set up a barbecue and, true to his meat fetish established on his first appearance, began to cook meat on it. He recruited Ventidius to turn the meat and also waft the barbecue, at which Ventidius protested “But it’s an electric grill”.
Apemantus sat in her habitual spot on the balcony and mocked Ventidius for multitasking. She spoke the words “Die Welt is kalt/the world is cold” into the megaphone’s memory and played them in a loop until Ventidius shot her.
Alcibiades threatened Athens, which surrendered. A new order was established in which the soldier extended a greeting to everyone and welcomed us all to Alcibiades’ party. History was repeating itself with a new ruler echoing the words of the old order, a theme common to several Globe to Globe productions.
The soldier sat upstage with his cronies as they all ate the freshly barbecued meat, and doled out government jobs to them.
Timon died on the top step of the centre stairway as Flaminius, touchingly devoted to the end, flew the paper butterfly over him.
The onstage presence of a large trampoline and other facets of the adaptation brought an element of comedy to Timon’s downfall. His consequent self-imposed exile was characterised by anger and bitterness and, as events became ever more absurd, culminated in his death. But despite all this, the production did offer glimpses of a better world.
The Artist reminded us that we could make beautiful things instead of making war. The final image of the production with Flaminius flying the Artist’s paper butterfly over the dead Timon, emphasised the gentleness of compassion rather than the destructiveness of greed.