Review: Timon of Athens at the National Theatre

Simon Russell Beale and company at Timon of Athens. Photo Johan Persson

At the interval of the National Theatre production, my friend revstan and I were having a quick peak at the wikipedia entry for Timon of Athens (we were wondering about authoring issues if you need to know), and immediately started questioning this wikipedia statement: “[Timon Of Athens] is generally regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most obscure and difficult works”. Watching the production directed by Nic Hytner, I can’t see what’s difficult about this play.

In fact, the first thought that crossed my mind when the performance started was how 21st century the play feels. I don’t merely mean it has contemporary echoes. The impression left by the production is that the play had to wait four hundred years to find its proper setting. When Flavia said: “They answer, in a joint and corporate voice, …”, I had to look the quote up and make sure Nic Hytner hadn’t tampered with the language (he hadn’t). Shakespeare’s plot, language and characters find the perfect setting in Hytner’s modern production (21st century London complete with Occupy tents, riots and renaming of art spaces after rich donors – wouldn’t it be fun to watch the production alongside the National’s rich corporate partners?) that it’s hard to think it done any other way.

Writing about Simon Russell Beale, I am in danger of going all superlative with no sense of proportion. An actor of superior intellect, emotionally fearless and very modest, his Timon is so profoundly lost and hurt by his “friends'” behaviour that his actions are moving, scary and unpredictable in equal measures. Look out for the party scene at the end of Act III, I don’t think I am likely to see many scenes as explosive as that this year. And, if you know the text, let’s just say the plates don’t contain lukewarm water.

In this production, Flavius has become Flavia, played by Deborah Findlay. Her character is the only character in the play that can inspire faith in the human race, and her relationship with Timon, especially their scene together in the second half, reveals the full extend of the tragedy: not only has Timon been betrayed by his friends, he is unable to hang onto the people who truly care for him.

The staging is impressive, with the sets and design looking in turn affluent, occasionally ghastly (the right kind of ghastly) and desolate. We don’t get much of the tricks possible at the Olivier stage, although the revolve is put to great use: I loved the big dinner table being whisked around through narrow spaces. And it’s always a treat seeing the Olivier stage at all its expansive glory. A special mention for the huge cast: I loved how the background crowd made the scenes, pitch perfect in their roles, providing a rich texture for the foreground action.

Timon of Athens will be performed in rep till November, and I might not resist a second visit. The National, in association with the British Museum, puts up an exhibition for the Making of Timon, starting 17th July. From the preparations I saw, it will be definitely worth the visit.

UPDATE 15/7

Revstan published her Timon review, this is comparing notes from the same performance. Also the Indpendent has a cracking article on the production, Paul Taylor’s articles and reviews are always worth a read.

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