While directors seldom shy away from interpreting Shakespeare, sometimes searching almost perversely for a spin that promotes their production, Nicholas Hytner’s Timon of Athens offers something different. As Shakespeare’s least known work, we have the unusual situation of an audience coming to the show fresh. As a result, the new production at the National Theatre makes a remarkable contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival, presenting a contemporary sounding voice that demands to be heard.
Timon of Athens contains more parable than plot and traces the downfall of the eponymous protagonist, who is ruined by his generosity in a mercenary world. It’s easy to see the writing on the wall for Timon, but filling the play with contemporary references, setting the action in Canary Wharf and Parliament, and casting the rebel Alcibiades as a political protestor in the mould of ‘Occupy’ movement, give the production a powerful resonance in our financially unstable times. It’s a wicked world out there; you’ve only got to watch out for the on-stage product placement from Jaeger to have your cynicism reinforced.
The play’s main fault lies with its characterisation but Hytner’s cast manages to deal with this. Deborah Findlay is superb as Timon’s steward, adding emotional punch to the play, while Hilton McRae is excellent as the philosopher Apemantus. In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale gives a magnificent performance: his powerful presence matches the play’s directness – there are no byways here, just a monotonous misanthropy. Few actors could carry the violence of Timon’s language, his prayer of vengeance, this convincingly. Both Russell Beale and Hytner convey the bleakest view of humanity, making Timon of Athens the National’s most radical, challenging production for quite some time.
Until 31 October 2012
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 18 July 2012 for The London Magazine