Review – Timon of Athens, National Theatre

According to Wikipedia: “One of his most obscure and difficult works”; “a poor relation of the major tragedies”‘;  “often grouped with the problems plays.”

This did not bode entirely well.  Nor did the age of the audience going in, which my arrival lowered by about ten years.  It’s important to remember that this is a National Theatre and RSC co-production, assuring that it is placed in the very heart of the venn diagram that is “things that appeal to old people.”

But, it did have Britain’s Greatest Actor in it, and if you’re going to cross Timon of Athens off your list of “Shakespeare plays you only have to see once” then you might as well do it when SRB and Nicholas Hytner are involved.

The production is wonderful.  It’s lively, beautifully designed, beautifully lit and superbly acted. It has a contemporary concept behind it (Alcibiades = Occupy Athens, Timon = The 1%, his troubles = a parable of our debt-ridden over-extended Western civilisation) which makes you wonder how you could ever tell it in a different way, but without ever being heavy handed or seeming unnatural.

There’s, in short, a huge amount to like about this production.  In fact, you couldn’t ask for a better production of Timon of Athens.  But the question remains: why would anyone in their right mind ever ask for a production of Timon of Athens?

The first half chugs along quite nicely.  Timon is a grandiste socialite, generous to his friends, confident of his standing both societal and social; but then he falls on hard times and finds that the friends he supported will not support him in his hour of need. In revenge, he organises one final big hurrah of a dinner party but (surprise!) he in fact throws shit at them. Literally! Brilliant!

Gin & tonic time. Consensus is that things are going pretty well and I’m optimistic at the interval. If he’s already literally making his enemies eat shit then imagine what a badass Timon is going to be in the second half.  There’s a storm coming.  He will be Athens’ reckoning.  You should be afraid of him as I am.  He doesn’t owe these people any more.  He’s given these people everything.  Not quite everything.

Sadly, that’s not what happens in the second half.  In fact, Timon just goes to an emotional and physical wasteland and laments the state of the world for HOURS.  Every time you think it’s climaxing and it’s going to end, it doesn’t.  FOR HOURS.

At one point he finds some gold, which seems like good news but isn’t.  And then some people try to steal it, which seems like bad news but isn’t.  FOR HOURS. (Note: this was a preview so maybe they’ve trimmed some of the lamenting, whining, complaining and misanthropy)

And then suddenly it does end and there’s a few minutes of rushed, and therefore incomprehensible rise to power by Alcibiades back in Athens. And then someone comes in and says that Timon’s dead.  Curtain.

Look, don’t get me wrong: I’d pay good money to watch SRB watch someone else watch paint dry, let alone watch him lament the wretchedness of the world.  This is the virtuoso performance of this role that you’d expect from Britain’s Greatest Actor and it’s done against a backdrop of a superbly executed production, but it doesn’t surpass the fact that this is a very, very difficult play to enjoy.

A noble effort, but one you can miss unless you’re determined to see every Shakespeare play, in which case: good news, it gets better from here!