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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Ph: Johan Persson

Triumphantly marching his way towards Prospero and Lear, Simon Russell Beale, who is 51, has already chalked up an impressive Shakespearean resume, ranging from Hamlet to Iago, from Benedick to his recent television appearances as Falstaff. Erasing the distinctions between character actor and leading man, Russell Beale ranks as one of the most distinguished and mellifluous actors on today’s London stage. In fact he is so good as Timon that he comes close to unbalancing this production.

But then the play itself is hardly well balanced. There are plenty of reasons why this is among the least performed of all Shakespeare’s plays – the chief one being that he probably didn’t write large chunks of it. There are none of the psychological probings that distinguish Shakespeare’s greatest works. Instead we have a cynical morality play devoid of ambiguities – people as symbols. Timon himself seems to be something of an orphan. He has no wife, no children, no background of any kind. Why he happens to be the wealthiest man in sight is never explained.

Director Nicholas Hytner makes an excellent case for transforming ancient Athens into the Greece of today. Of course, this is also meant to be the City of London, with its immoral bankers and tented community of Occupy protesters, plus the lingering menace of last summer’s rioting.

The opening scene is set in a wing of the National Gallery, which is being christened as “The Timon Room.” This comes across like a clip from a 24/7 news channel broadcast. The room is being inaugurated with Timon’s (unwittingly ironic) gift of a giant El Greco painting that depicts Christ chasing the moneychangers from the Temple.

Timon has a disease of giving, giving, giving – in the assumption that his largesse is earning him love. He abruptly learns otherwise. When his money runs out he is unable to rely on any of his “friends.” Each of them has his own self-serving excuse for not coming to Timon’s aid. This pushes him over the brink and drives him out of Athens with venom dripping from his lips.

The next time we see Timon, his luxurious, beautifully tailored suit has been replaced by slovenly rags. He’s been transformed into a bagman dragging a supermarket trolley piled high with black plastic bags full of junk. While he’s raining down curses on all humanity he is on his knees pawing through the garbage in search of something to eat. In the twinkling of an eye Timon has gone from profligate philanthropist to unmitigated misanthrope.

The flawed crux of his character is revealed in a lengthy rant with the churlish Apemantus (Hilton McRae). Their spiteful sparring diatribe is summed up when he says of Timon, “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.” 

And that’s about it. Man’s inhumanity to man is a never-changing plague.

Hytner has handed several of the male roles to women. Deborah Findlay is cast as Timon’s faithful steward, the play’s single altruistic character; and even she has to abandon him eventually. Another of his servants is now a woman in order to allow one of Timon’s slimy creditors an ungainly attempt at seducing her. Another woman is a glamorous banker – think Christine Lagarde. Her spurious Get Out of Jail Free card is the implied insult she feels when she discovers that she was not the very first person Timon turned to for help.

There is no point in attempting to stage this bizarre, deeply flawed play without an actor willing to go out on a limb. But when someone like Russell Beale comes along, we are rewarded with a performance that transforms the printed page into lightning.


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