Timon of Athens, Olivier Theatre, 14 August 2012
Demonstrators huddled among a city of tents that loomed out of the darkness. It seemed for all the world that the Occupy protestors had decided to continue the fight against global capitalism from the stage of the Olivier.
Timon (Simon Russell Beale) and his guests swept through the scattered tents (1.1). As they arrived downstage a wall was flown in dominated by a large painting showing Christ expelling the money changers from the Temple. This was a touch doubtless appreciated by production sponsors Travelex.
The wall had two doorways left and right and a revolving circular track looped round the front of the stage connecting them.
The guests mingled at what turned out to be the opening of the Timon Room at a prestigious art gallery. The Poet (Nick Sampson) and the Painter (Penny Layden) had a strained conversation in which their rivalry for Timon’s attention was submerged beneath layers of gentility. As if to remind us of the general atmosphere of sycophancy, their discussion was punctuated by the other’s cries of “Timon!” as he circulated the room as its peripatetic centre of attention.
The Painter was a cockney and given the modern UK setting was probably supposed to remind us of Tracey Emin and her YBA ilk. The Merchant became here an American actor (Ciarán McMenamin), whose “O, ‘tis a worthy lord” emerged from the background noise.
The Poet’s description of the work he was offering to Timon as “A thing slipped idly from me” was grotesquely insincere and very funny. He started quoting from it again, but the Painter looked over his shoulder and implied patronisingly that the visual imagery relating to Timon in his poem would be better expressed in painting.
The Poet’s book was entitled “The Ivory Hand” and the cover revealed his name to be Horace Nashe. The play contains a line from the Roman poet Horace, and perhaps Nashe was a reference to the writer Thomas Nashe.
The jovial, affable Timon was presented with a series of requests to which he gladly acceded. He arranged to bail Ventidius (Tom Robertson). This generosity seemed to be integral to his character and not something wrung from him as a result of the attention he was receiving.
The Old Athenian here became Lucullus (Paul Bentall) who protested about his daughter being frequented by Lucilius (Stavros Demetraki). When he asked Timon to join him in forbidding this, Timon fixed him with a stare and blankly asked him about the love between the couple. His short brief statements and questions “The man is honest” and “Does she love him?” demonstrated Timon’s insistence that these matters of the heart were more important than money.
But as Lucullus and his soon-to-be son-in-law exited, Lucullus slapped him on the back and said “Well done!” This completely new line made the entire sequence into a plot cooked up between them to trick the naïve Timon.
The realisation that Timon was easily duped and in some ways the victim of other’s conniving made him immediately more sympathetic.
The Jeweller (Jo Dockery) clearly implied that her gift of a jewel to Timon was a simple ploy to make her products more valuable through his endorsement. She was purring in anticipation of the sales boost, providing another example of the self-interested slyness of his entourage.
Apemantus (Hilton McRae) in his long dark coat was immediately a fascinating figure. He was roughly the same age as Timon, unlike most of the hangers-on. It was interesting to speculate on the history of the friendship in this modern UK context. Apemantus had clearly been a confidant and advisor to Timon; perhaps they had been at university together and Timon had become wealthy while Apemantus had not?
After a battle of wits with the Painter, the focus remained on Apemantus because the character of Alcibiades, an outsider associated with the protesters, was cut from the scene.
A dinner table arrived on the revolving circular track and the diners took their places (1.2).
The poshmo Ventidius thanked Timon for his release and offered to return the bail money, but Timon thrust it back at him. The portrayal of Ventidius skimmed the edges of caricature without becoming overly ridiculous.
Apemantus was beckoned to sit at the opposite end of the table to Timon. At first he refused, disgusted that Timon could not see how the others ravenously exploited him . He eventually took his place but Apemantus’ grace before the meal was cut.
Timon showed his emotional nature, speaking with a tear in the corner of his eye about the wealth he found in his closest friends. The audience laughed when Timon wished he was poorer to be closer to them, but this comedy was always undercut by the knowledge, as Apemantus consistently pointed out, that these people were his enemies.
The masque took the form of dancers (Pietra Mello-Pitman and Karis Scarlette) performing balletic moves within a space set into the wall. Once their brief dance was over, Apemantus insulted them, prompting genteel hushed admonishment from the others. The dancers joined in the feast and Timon showered everyone with gifts.
The female Flavia (Deborah Findlay) expressed concern at Timon’s unabated generosity. The four horses “trapped in silver” became a painting of horses in a silver frame, which was handed to a grateful Timon.
Flavia spoke downstage about Timon’s profligacy, a flaw aptly demonstrated when he gave away a horse. His explanation “’Tis yours because you liked it” was childish in its simplicity.
As the table revolved out the stage right door, Timon became angry at Apemantus for his sullenness. Timon paused between Apemantus, his true friend and counsellor, on one side and beckoning flatterers on the other; in a symbolic moment he went over to join the flatterers.
The revolve brought in a transparent office desk as Canary Wharf’s HSBC tower appeared in the window to show that the action had moved the capital’s centre of moneyed power (2.1). The text’s Senator became a banker totting up Timon’s wastage and dispatching Caphis (Craige Els) to collect a debt from him. A line from Coriolanus about the “rabble” was interpolated here as the sound of Alcibiades’ army was heard down in the street.
A clutch of debt collectors gathered inside Timon’s house each slapping a brown envelope against him as they demanded repayment (2.2).
Alcibiades, Apemantus and the Fool were cut from the scene so that it continued with Flavia explaining to Timon why he had no funds. It was touching to see Timon think he could count on his friends, but we had already been prepared to see them as duplicitous.
Flavia pre-empted Timon’s suggestion by telling him she had already asked the senators to assist but they had refused. There was a note of humour in this collision of Timon’s naivety, Flavia’s efficiency and the senators’ slyness.
Timon dispatched his people to recover funds from his friends.
At the scene changeover, Alcibiades (Ciarán McMenamin again) and his army marched across stage shouting “Down with Athens!”
The scene changed to an office reception with a sofa and coffee table strewn with magazines and a copy of the FT (3.1). A sign projected onto the wall proclaimed this to be the HQ of Lucullus Capital. The female Flaminia (Olivia Llewellyn) waited to meet Lucullus who was ushered in by his son-in-law Lucilius, the servant whom Timon had previously been tricked into enriching.
The presence of the word “pretty” in Lucullus’ lines in the original text was an absolute gift because it allowed the original’s schmoozing to become overt sexual harassment. The old man described the young female lasciviously as “pretty Flaminia” and started sliding up the sofa towards her.
Wine was brought and Lucilius was instructed to leave them alone, so that this really looked like an attempted seduction. As Lucullus asked her to “Draw nearer” her hands clasped together in an ungainly knot signalling her extreme discomfort. His proffer of money looked like he was trying to buy her. She threw the notes back at him and left in disgust.
The action moved to a club with modern art on the wall and comfortable chairs and sofas (3.2). The role of Lucius in the text was transferred to the already familiar character of Ventidius while the Painter and Poet were the Strangers.
Ventidius brayed in his upper class accent about being Timon’s friend. The Poet and Painter sat on the sofa commenting on Timon’s penury.
Timon’s servant Servilius (Tim Samuels) tried to ask Ventidius for money. He was met initially with some insincere joshing, an outward facsimile of cordiality, then Ventidius launched into a long, rambling and patently contrived excuse beginning “What a wicked beast was I” in which he claimed to have just spent what little spare cash he had. This was transparently a lie. Ventidius’ cold shoulder was particularly callous because Timon had secured his freedom.
The more extensive lines of the First Stranger were split between the Poet and the Painter so that the Poet claimed insincerely that he would have helped Timon.
Another gender swap gave us the character of Sempronia (Lynette Edwards), a female politician whom we met at the House of Commons, the side of the Palace of Westminster clearly visible through the window, although her ID badge identified the location as the Senate of Athens (3.3).
Her response to Timon’s embassage was clipped and insincere, almost but not quite like Mrs Thatcher, but with definite echoes of her haughtiness.
Like a consummate politician, she seized upon the fact that she had been asked last, using it as a pretext to engage in fake, self-righteous outrage. When she asked “Must I take the cure upon me?” the name-badged lackeys behind her cried “No senator!”
Debt collectors and paparazzi gathered in the street outside Timon’s house (3.4).
A shabbily dressed Flavia returned carrying an Iceland bag, a shopping destination that reflected the poor state of the household finances. She made her way through the throng of debt collectors and photographers.
Servilius appeared from inside the residence to send them away, but we soon heard the sound of Timon’s angry voice as he approached. He stormed out and railed at them, smashing a paparazzo’s camera to the ground.
Despite thrusting their brown envelopes at him, the debt collectors realised they were on a hiding to nothing and withdrew in disgust.
Timon looked both determined and profoundly agitated as he instructed his staff to prepare another feast for his friends (3.5).
The banishment of Alcibiades (3.6) was cut because in this production his character was a belligerent outsider right from the start.
Timon’s ‘friends’ displayed yet more insincerity as they gathered for his final banquet (3.7). But this time Timon matched their insincerity: a clear indication of his changed character.
An anxious guest asked if Timon had been put out by his refusal to send money. The reply “O sir, let it not trouble you” showed that Timon had been watching and learning from his fork-tongued acquaintances. The Second Lord was Ventidius, who had just recently said that he had run out of money.
The revolve brought in the same dinner table as before and the guests were delighted as the covered dishes were set before them.
Timon bade them sit down and began a grace. His sentiments gradually became weirder and more accusatory, and the guests started to exchange worried glances. Timon burst out of his chair, poured water over himself and ordered them to uncover their dishes. The guests turned away in revulsion, holding their noses at the malodorous excrement adorning the plates.
The angry Timon delivered a shower of invective. He smeared something even less pleasant on the head of one his guests. Not surprisingly, the diners fled in panic.
Timon spoke downstage as the table disappeared on the revolve. He then retired to make way for the guests who ran on again, as if coming from house.
Exposed and unprotected on the dangerous streets, the guests were soon surrounded by the ragtag army of demonstrators who emerged from the background to mob them and spray them with mace.
The melee dispersed and Timon came downstage to stare out at the auditorium and address the walls of the city he had just abandoned (4.1). In what was almost a show-stopping moment, Simon Russell Beale’s moving monologue conveyed the disappointment and frustration behind Timon’s railing. Timon threw away his jacket and credit cards saying “Take thou that too”. This was a suitably eventful moment at which to pause for the interval.
The second half began in an atmosphere of subdued domesticity in contrast to the frenetic activity that had closed the first half.
A stack of boxes stood forlorn in the hallway of Timon’s house (4.2). Flavia had gathered the rest of the staff and paid them a meagre amount from her savings.
Flavia’s speech questioning who would want to be rich was odd to hear on the day that the winners of the most recent Euromillions lottery draw had gone public to announce their newly-acquired wealth to the world.
Flavia mentioned that Timon had been “brought low by his own heart”: this was a key phrase describing exactly what had happened.
The house wall was flown up to reveal a scene of urban decay. Dark, wet concrete pillars, steel reinforcement rods jutting from them, stood amid a desolate wasteland strewn with rubbish bags (4.3).
Timon emerged from the darkness. His self-imposed exile had turned him into a unkempt, unshaven rough sleeper pushing a shopping trolley containing his meagre possessions.
There was no actual earth in this concrete landscape, so that when he called for the sun to “draw from the earth rotten humidity”, he gestured as if this would come from the scattered rubbish bags.
He fell down on the ground and ripped open the refuse sacks scavenging for food. He came across a drain cover which when opened revealed a bright, yellow light accompanied by the sound of clinking coins. He had found gold.
Descending into the hole, he brought out gold bars and also cash boxes filled with gold coins. He put some of the cash boxes into his trolley and replaced the cover.
This staging was problematic because buried treasure is believable, but the same cannot be said for a stash of gold bars and cash boxes found down a drain.
Timon hid from Alcibiades and his noisy, ragtag army of protestors when they gathered amid the concrete pillars. Alcibiades held audience and shouted slogans. Timon lurked at the back of the crowd, dancing and yelling support like a drunk.
Once he had come to the protestors’ attention, Timon insulted Phrynia (Jo Dockery again) and encouraged Timandra (Olivia Llewellyn again) to spread diseases by continuing to work as a prostitute. This raised the question of how he knew Timandra by name.
Alcibiades tossed a gold coin at Timon who rejected it. But he came alive when he heard that the soldier intended to make war against Athens. He delved in his trolley to retrieve a cash box and stood on a concrete stump to shower the protestors with gold coins.
The clamouring crowd scooped up the gold but were heedless to Timon’s lurid imagery imploring them to show no mercy to the Athenians. Although his situation had changed, Timon was still dispensing benefits to sycophantic followers under the illusion that they were paying attention.
The army left and Timon resumed his search for sustenance. He found a water bottle and a take-away in a foil tray, which in this urban environment replaced the roots of the original text’s rural setting.
Apemantus entered with a holdall and a bottle in his pocket. They engaged in a pithy exchange in which Timon claimed that his loss of status gave him more right to be miserable than the ever-lowly Apemantus. His friend countered saying that Timon was indulging in “unmanly melancholy”.
Timon said that he would like to see Apemantus hanged if his wealth were shut up inside him and enacted this imaginary situation by trying to force food into his friend’s mouth. Apemantus retrieved the water bottle from his pocket and gave it to Timon to “mend [his] feast”.
The continued dispute caused Apemantus to offer his famous analysis of Timon’s character “The middle of humanity thou never knewst, but the extremity of both ends.” The medlar/meddler wordplay was cut.
Timon sat with Apemantus and compared him unfavourably to a range of predated animals. But this congeniality soon descended into a spiteful argument that culminated in Timon throwing a rock at Apemantus. Timon looked to his gold, and Apemantus said he would tell others of his new wealth. The text’s misplaced announcement by Apemantus of the approach of the Poet and Painter was cut.
The bag of clothes that Apemantus had brought to enable Timon to return to polite society was examined and returned unwanted to its donor, after which Apemantus left Timon in peace.
Timon hid from the thieves he saw approaching. But they found him, beat him and kicked him giving Timon a bloody face. They searched his trolley and found a cash box containing gold coins. The bloodied Timon struggled forward on his hands and knees to ask “Want! Why want?” Timon’s request to the departing thieves that they “… go, break open shops” sounded eerie in the light of the previous year’s looting.
Flavia sought out Timon, but received little thanks for her pains. She managed to convince him of her loyalty and he looked heavenward to proclaim her an honest person. Timon’s mood was, however, very changeable. Flavia pressed her handkerchief to his bleeding face, a degree of solicitousness that prompted Timon’s suspicions. He pushed the handkerchief away and pointed an accusatory finger at Flavia saying “Is not thy kindness subtle, covetous…”
Timon calmed down again when Flavia reassured him of her selflessness saying “requite me by making rich yourself”. He uncovered the gold bars and offered them to her so that she could “Go, live rich and happy”. She wanted to stay with him, but he insisted that she leave.
The Poet and the Painter tracked Timon down as they discussed the rumours about his gold (5.1).
He responded to their offer to serve him by sitting them down on a concrete stump and giving them leftover takeaway and a bucket of fried chicken. They were unable to hide their disappointment. When Timon asked them if they had come because of rumours about his gold, they denied the accusation with comic insincerity.
He delighted in telling them that they had “a little fault”, moving behind them and peering through the steel reinforcements jutting out of the stump as if they were prison bars. He made them stand apart and told each one “an arch-villain keeps him company”. Timon promised them gold, but instead retrieved an axe from his trolley and used it to chase them away. This axe was not a random choice of prop, but an implement to which he would soon allude.
Flavia returned bringing with her senators from Athens (5.2). They were desperate to have Timon and his gold back to pay for the defence of the city against Alcibiades.
Timon’s disinterest in their request merged into his mournful announcement that his epitaph would be seen “tomorrow”, a word to which Flavia reacted with extreme concern. But Timon continued: “My long sickness of health and living now begins to mend”.
He appeared to change his mind and said that he loved his country, which elicited repeated praise from Sempronia. The senators gathered close round Timon, expecting further concessions. The group faced the audience as Timon pointed to a distant tree and told them to go hang themselves from it. This vicious anticlimax was very effective.
He urged potential suicides to hurry as he was soon going to cut down the tree with an axe. The recent memory of him brandishing an axe against the Poet and Painter turned the felling of the unseen tree into a realistic prospect, thereby lending an extra degree of plausibility to Timon’s lurid mass hanging scenario.
Flavia and the senators departed. The text was rearranged to make Timon’s final words a soliloquy rather a speech directed at the assembled company. It seemed absolutely correct for Timon’s farewell to be a lonely one.
He stood over the gold pit and at “Sun, hide thy beams” the yellow light from the pit went dark. This staging implied a connection in Timon’s mind between the heavenly sun and the ultimately treacherous glister of gold.
Scenes 5.3 and 5.4, with the discovery of Timon’s grave, were cut. The production shifted back to Athens with the senators lined up on one side of a large conference table (5.5). Alcibiades and his troops marched in and he presented his terms. The dialogue between the two factions was broken up with intervals of consultation among each side to suggest a lengthy period of negotiation rather than a cursory arrangement.
The Athenians offered Alcibiades a list of those to be culled, which he mulled over. Once an agreement was reached, he changed from his scruffy clothes into a suit and sat on the same side of the table as the senators, effectively joining the ruling classes.
A soldier brought news of Timon’s death and a transcript of his epitaph, which Alcibiades read out. He dictated his response as an official statement on Timon’s demise.
Alcibiades’ final words were lifted from Celia’s speech in As You Like It “Now go we to liberty”. While providing a sense of ending, for those who recognised the speech it created a renewed feeling of incompletion because this was half of an existing line.
As he spoke these words, the window lit up to show that we were in Canary Wharf. This was a significant detail because it indicated that the real seat of power and government was the City, the financial centre, and not Westminster, which could have been setting for these governmental negotiations.
The staging deliberately brought out the connection between the play and recent events. But it is worth remembering that Timon of Athens is not a play about general economic turmoil, but a study of personal betrayal and the tribulations of a newly-poor plutocrat, focusing on his individual psychology, and offering only a glancing commentary on the corrupting influence of money.
While Alcibiades and his army were glossed as the Occupy movement, the production implied that such revolutionaries were simply plutocrats in waiting. The play itself lauds the loyalty of Flavius/Flavia whose principal motivation is to restore Timon to his moneyed content.
That last point goes a long way to explaining why big City institutions had no qualms about sponsoring the production.
Was the character of the Poet an instance of Shakespeare indulging in self-loathing? This character, who earns a living sucking up to the wealthy in search of preferment, could have been an unflattering self-portrait or possibly an in-joke in which Shakespeare satirised his own quest for patronage.