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Timely Timon @nationaltheatre

Timonofathens13july2012twoEverything about the National Theatre's  production of Timon of Athens (pronounced Ti-mon not Tee-mon as the Greeks do) screams of the current global economic crisis. From the camping protesters at the beginning to back drops of the bank-branded Canary Wharf buildings it resonates and the story itself also feels startlingly contemporary.

Timon (Simon Russell Beale) is generous with his friends. He helps them out without a blink, buys them gifts, gives artists patronage and throws lavish dinner parties. He is generous to the point of bankruptcy but when his debtors come calling and he turns to his friends for help the doors are suddenly closed on him. Generosity of wealth is not even matched in spirit.

Without the back drop of our own financial crisis, I am sure the play would feel very different but here Timon's spending beyond his means, ignoring creditors and the ease with which his followers accept his generosity feels far more symbolic. 

The story becomes a little more inward looking in the second half when Timon's downfall turns him into a misanthropic, bin-bag, food scavenger. However, here too as word gets out that Timon might still have money the old crowd come skulking back looking for hand outs and there is something quite distasteful and, dare I say it, anti-capitalist in tone about the effect money has.

Even the protesters (as they portrayed here rather than the army of a vengeful lord), those supposedly opposed to capitalism and extravagance, scrabble to collect Timon's discarded coins. 

"You want too much"

Timon's story has a slightly strange and unsatisfactory ending it chimes, appropriately I suppose, of Greek Tragedy in that his demise happens off stage and is reported. Strange for a play written or least co-written by Shakespeare who never normally shies away from a death scene.

It is called one of Shakespeare's problem plays and ending aside I don't understand why, its plot and ultimately its message of greed and the corrupting power of money come across very clearly.  Maybe it's the timing of the production that resonates particularly with a contemporary audience.

This is a wonderfully staged play. Simon Russell Beale once again sprinkles his magic acting dust on the character mentally and physically evolving from generous affable host to venting his spleen in poisonous vitriol that must surely contain some of the best curses and put downs in Shakespeare.

He's ably supported by what is almost an ironically large and extravagant cast that even includes a couple of professional dancers.

It is a timely production and very well done, I'm going to give it four and a half stars. Timon of Athens runs in rep at the Olivier until Oct 31

Production shot by Johan Persson


With such a large cast it was never going to be difficult but here are couple of direct links: Jason Cheater was also in The Hour and Nick Sampson was in the original production of His Dark Materials which also featured Mr W.