Sunday, 9 September 2012

Timon of Athens.

To the National to see a fantastic production of Timon of Athens boldly conceived by Nick Hytner as a parable for post-recession London and starring Simon Russell Beale in the leading role.

I always think of the play as one of Shakespeare's most straight forward. The first act is a clear morality play about the limits and dangers of generosity and patronage. Timon, the only major protagonist in Shakespeare's canon to have neither family nor love interest, is deluded into thinking friendship has no bounds. He's disabused when he realises nothing exists in his world beyond financial transaction.

The second act almost anticipates the sparse wastelands of Beckett's nihilistic imagination as Timon plagued with a reactive cynicism philosophically tackles the society that has destroyed him and will, in time destroy itself.

Shakespeare wrote the play, probably with Middleton, as a critique of the indulgent Jacobean Court, but Hytner cleverly manages to provide a broader social context for this version with bankers calling in creditors and an Occupy London protest rapidly gaining momentum in the background. The production ends in a fantastical synthesis where, under the threat of revolution and after a short period of negotiation, these two groups come together to form a future society, denouncing Timon en route as an icon of a discredited credit focused system.

Tim Hatley simple, but localised set, draws attention to three different groups of flatterers: artists, politicians and bankers in the first act, before switching to a building site for a new skyscraper, abandoned, one suspects, in the face of rising costs.

Russell Beale is magnificent in the title role. Urbane and witty to begin with, his fury at the inability of his friends to return his acts of generosity becomes almost precocious in its wounded sense of entitlement. In one moment, reminiscent of the mad disbelieving scrabble that Enron and Barings executives went through as they realised there lives were going down the plug hole, he rushes out, shirt unbuttoned into the street to confront his creditors and wrestle with the paparazzi.

Timon of Athens was Karl Marx's favourite play. He found wisdom in Shakespeare's analysis of the mercantile society and warning of cataclysm. Hytner's work, once more, hints that a more radical solution than a tightening of out belts might be needed. I think Marx might approve all over again.

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