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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  Ph: Johan Persson

The subtitle should be "Exit pursued by a bear-market." Nicholas Hytner’s riveting production – which shows capitalism at its most meretricious – sharpens up a flawed Jacobean curiosity and aims it straight at the heart of our 21st-century financial crisis. Debt bred by bullish insouciance, the fickleness of sycophants, and a mob that translates nicely into the Occupy movement – it resonates with our age like a gilded tuning fork. At its centre, Simon Russell Beale tracks Timon’s transition from reckless munificence to malignant disillusion in a masterful performance that shows the nihilistic flipside of a universe where everything is judged by its price tag.
Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s later works, a collaboration – scholars concluded at the start of the 20th century – with Thomas Middleton. While the satire, deflected to Ancient Greece, points a finger at today’s financiers, it is equally a portrait of Jacobean excess: James I, unlike Elizabeth, was profligate with the public purse and, like Timon, smothered his friends with gifts of jewels, land and money. One of his lords was even known to invite guests to dinners where a vast display of food would be presented to them just long enough to get them salivating, before throwing the food away and presenting an identical feast for them actually to eat. No wonder the dinner party proves such a centre point to Timon’s revenge.
Tim Hatley’s slick revolving set underpins the sophisticated veneer of this financial morality tale. Wittily, the opening scene is set at an art gathering where "The Timon Room" is emblazoned on the walls – yet in between the entrances to the room a picture hangs of El Greco’s "Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple." Russell Beale cleverly demonstrates how for his Timon philanthropy is a performance. He is a master of the public, declamatory gesture but flinches when certain individuals get too close. In the course of a few minutes he proves before an attendant crowd that money can buy you love, and the best things in life aren’t free – but Hilton McRae’s wiry philosopher, Apemantus, is already sounding a warning knell.
Apemantus is the play’s only unmistakably Greek character – a Cynic with a capital "C" directly descended from Diogenes. In refusing to be seduced by the pap of luxury, he anticipates Timon’s eventual rejection of the world that fawns upon him. But while Timon’s disillusionment with capitalist butterflies proves a tragedy, for Apemantus this disillusion is necessary for survival. For the first part of the evening our geographical reference points are Canary Wharf and the West End, but in the second part Timon inhabits a cardboard city where the mob of protesters who find him prove themselves to be just as biddable by the gold he finds there as the sycophants he has left behind. It is here that he and Apemantus finally form a bond – but it proves unredemptive for both of them.
This production incorporates a distinctively Middletonian flourish. Rather than Timon serving his sycophants stones and water at the second, central banquet, he presents them with plates of shit. It’s a blackly funny moment, but in an evening that makes so many jibes at our own situation, it makes you wonder how our own financial crisis is going to end. 


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