“Men shut their doors against a setting sun”

Timon of Athens, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Here it is, as promised, my review of the National Theatre‘s recent production of ‘Timon of Athens’ starring Simon Russell Beale. I’m afraid I didn’t get to see it in the theatre, but instead went, about a week ago, to a cinema near my house to see ‘National Theatre Live’, which also happened to be the last night of the production. I would seriously urge you to try one of these cinema nights; they have them reasonably often, maybe once a month, in 600 cinemas across the world, and it means you get to see a great production for a bit less money and with a bit less effort! Personally, nothing for me can beat going to the theatre and the anticipation of waiting for the lights to go down, but this is the next best thing. Plus, there are little features and interviews before the play starts and during the interval so you actually learn more about the origins of the play and why they chose to perform the production in that way. Anyway, if you’re interested, I’ll upload the link: http://microsites.nationaltheatre.org.uk/ntlive

Now, moving on to the actual play. If I’m honest, I don’t think this is one of Shakespeare’s best plays. As one of my friends, Helen, who saw it in the theatre, said: “There aren’t really any very complex relationships. They could have just ended it after the first half” (I say ‘half’, not ‘act’ by the way, because Shakespeare’s texts are all split into five acts, though almost every director chooses to ignore these and inserts the intervals where he/she feels fit , since four intervals would just be too much!). Now, in terms of plot, Helen is completely right, and the interview with the director, Nicholas Hytner, made this very clear. He warned the audience in the interval, basically, that ‘If you want plot, you might as well go home now’.

The main gist of the story; of Timon being a ridiculously generous man, who buys so many extravagant things for the sicophants and flatterers who surrounds him that he goes bankrupt, is pretty clear. Though he appeals to others for help, they put him off with excuses. Angered by this, he invites them again to a last luxurious dinner, at which, assuming he has found wealth, they proclaim their sorrow at no having been able to help. At this, he commands them to open their dinner plates where they find rocks and water (they changed this to ‘filth’ in the NT production to make more of an impact). Timon hurls the water and plates at them and then flees his own home. So far so simple, right? Well, unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays (try explaining all the different family relationships in ‘King Lear!), it doesn’t get much more complex. All of the above took place in the first half, and the second half was more a long, drawn-out moan of despair and bitterness at humanity’s nature, by the disillusioned Timon. Luckily, Beale played this amazingly well, and so it wasn’t mind-numbingly dull, as I feel it could have been, but still, after a while I almost wanted to shake Timon and tell him to pull himself together!

The setting of this production is something many have commented on in their reviews, and I feel it certainly did add an extra, interesting layer on top of the play. It was set in the modern day, something that’s never been done before with ‘Timon’, yet worked perfectly. Ominous hoodies and rioters surrounded the aristocrats when they were thrown out of their plush clubs and offices, which really gave an underlying sense of tension and threat. one of my absolute favourite characters was Ventidius, purely because of the way Tom Robertson played him (see above with Beale). A rich socialite, with inherited wealth who had been bailed out of prison became a satirical sketch of all the ‘Made in Chelsea’ stereotypes. Just the way he pronounced some of the words produced copious laughter, and yet he was, at the same time, oddly realistic; his performance wasn’t so over the top that you couldn’t see him as anything but a source of humour. Although Robertson and Beale were my favourites, I don’t really think there was a weak link in the cast, although I felt Deborah Findlay as Flavia, the steward was a little monotonous in her intonation. I was especially excited to see that Philotus, another of my favourites, was played by Alfred Enoch who acted Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films!

Overall, a really good production and an effective setting made one of Shakespeare’s less exciting plays much better than I expected it to be. Though I say less exciting, many of the characters were very funny, like the Painter and the Writer, and there were several great quotes as per usual which summed a feeling up just a few words.

Talking of Shakespeare-related events, I and a few friends (Sophie, Micha and Elli), recently went to the British Museum to an event called ‘Shakespeare Beyond the City: Late’, run in conjunction with the National Theatre. We got to see a stage combat demonstration, RADA students performing some of the sonnets surrounded by ancient art, music and drama artefacts (they were really good actually!), make plaster-of-paris imitations of the ‘Ides of March’ coin (although mine has somewhat broken and so has become more of an archeological ruin) and hear Janet Suzman talk on Cleopatra. I thought she was very interesting, although I didn’t totally agree with her theory that Cleopatra in the original productions of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ was played by a woman, not a young boy as was usual at the time; I don’t feel this would have gone unrecorded since it was such a big deal, as is shown in one of my earlier posts. Anyway, I would really recommend checking some of these ‘late’ events out, because they’re a lot of fun and absolutely free 🙂

Coming up, I’ll be doing a less Bard-focused post; I recently read ‘Letters to Alice on first reading Jane Austen’ by Fay Wheldon, ‘Life: an exploded diagram’ by Mal Peet and, on the recommendation of my friends, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky (the film of which came out very recently, starring Emma Watson, Logan Lerman and Ezra Miller), so keep checking back! Thanks for reading.

NB: Just a quick thing which is pretty important, relating to ‘Timon of Athens’ – this is one of the plays Shakespeare is known to have collaborated with Thomas Middleton on. Middleton was a much more satirical writer than Shakespeare, and I feel the mixing of the two playwright’s elements is clear in this play; sometimes the two styles just don’t quite flow – although I couldn’t say where specifically!

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2 comments on ““Men shut their doors against a setting sun”

  1. Good analysis of a so-so play by the Bard and a new production of it. Bravo!

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