Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Timon of Wall Street

In London for a week-long pre-Olympic sojourn, I caught the first preview of Shakespeare's Timon of Athens at the National Theatre and thought the production, directed by the National's chief executive, Nicholas Hytner, was quite brilliant.

Simon Russell Beale
Simon Russell Beale plays the title character in this strange and modern tale, a collaboration between Shakespeare and playwright Thomas Middleton.

The scene, in the National's cavernous Olivier theatre, opens upon a scattered tent encampment and a few young people hanging about, reminiscent of the Occupy movements, especially the one that sprang up around St. Paul's Cathedral for a few months.

Designer Tim Hatley's wondrous set begins with a gray wall across center stage, two doorways, a huge painting of Jesus throwing the money changers out of the temple and projected letters reading "The Timon Room."

Timon, a wealthy patron of the arts, is enjoying the adulation of the cocktail party crowd, who seem to turn like a shoal of fish whenever he comes into view. Everyone's jockeying for this tycoon's favor - a painter who wants to give him a painting, an author who has a new book, etc., and for good reason. Timon really is generous to a fault, lavishing money beyond reason on his friends.

At a subsequent dinner party at his house (the painting has disappeared and in its frame, dancers entertain the guests on Timon's invitation), he rejoices in his life. However, it seemed that through Hytner's blocking and Bruno Poet's lighting design, Timon often seemed alone. Beale, a roundish man, exudes geniality and good humor with a little desperation behind it. He seems to have his values straight as he toasts his guests: "I am wealthy in my friends." But the local philosopher, Apemantus (the forceful Hilton McRae) scorns the whole scene.

Timon's loyal steward, Flavia (Deborah Findley) tries to get him to rein in his spending, but to no avail. Her master seems addicted to the attention his money brings him. When it runs out (the giant set window now shows a view of London's financial center from the Lucullan Capital office), Timon's friends are terribly, terribly sorry, but it's just a bad time ... they have other priorities ... they just can't help, so sorry.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters march between a couple of scenes and in Act II, Timon is among them, homeless, shabby and pushing a shopping cart through cement pillars crowned by rebar, possibly a bridge construction site. He finds a mysterious cache of gold under an iron door in the street, but the Occupy protestors are no more noble than his friends, corrupted by the gold coins he flings among them.

"I am sick of this false world," cries Timon as Christopher Shutt's subtle sound design layers faint eerie metallic sounds under the scenes under the bridge. Timon rails against mankind and dies -- offstage. It's not an easy play but Hytner has made the most of it and the first preview certainly didn't seem like any kinks were being worked out and got rousing applause.

The last production of this play I saw was about six or seven years ago at the Stratford Festival in Canada with the late Peter Donaldson in the title role and he was just riveting. Beale, a highly experienced Shakespearean actor, for me was most convincing in the early scenes but both he and Findlay tended to declaim and my mind wandered sometimes. Bernard Hopkins, who played the steward in Stratford, made him a poignant loyal servant with a heart, but Findley seems like she's just nagging and exasperated. (It's written as a male role, but I like the significant use of middle-aged female actors in this production.)

Among Timon's friends, Nick Sampson as a egotistical poet, Penny Layden as a painter, Jo Dockery as a jeweller and Ciaran McMenamin as an actor, Paul Bentall as Lucullus and Tom Robertson as Ventidius (a drawling, amusing portrait) all stood out.

Besides the scenic design, Hatley and Hytner made the most use of the Olivier's turntable, with the two dinner party scenes gliding on and off to beautiful effect. Poet's lighting design made use of a fair bit of side lighting, throwing long shadows, which I didn't really care for, but his lighting of the gold hoard in the ground that Timon finds was extraordinary.

Although Timon ends on an ambiguous note, leading some to think the play was not finished, and its text doesn't reach the poetic heights of the great plays, it proves once again that Shakespeare wrote for all time.

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