This is the context of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, but for this production at the National Theatre, the setting is modern London. Or to be more precise, last summer’s London. The scene is set even before the first words are spoken, with tents, placards and protestors dotted around the stage conjuring up the unmistakable image of the Occupy movement. Such reminders are repeated throughout, from London Fashion Week bags, to glimpses of the HSBC tower through a window.
The reason director Nicholas Hytner felt the play transferred so well from ancient Greece to present-day London is obvious with even a vague knowledge of the plot. Set to the backdrop of rioting in the city of Athens, Timon is living the high life. Hosting lavish banquets, knocking back copious amounts of champagne and opening wings at art galleries, he is followed around by doting sycophants hoping to benefit from his famed generosity.
However, as his fortune dwindles and he finds himself bankrupt, his former ‘friends’ suddenly find themselves unable to help him financially. Financial mismanagement set to a backdrop of growing social unrest could be used to describe London over the past few years, and the story of Timon of Athens fits perfectly.
A PLAY OF TWO HALVES
The first half of the production is characterised by constantly shifting settings (literally with a rotating floor), over-the-top humour and action, and a revolving door of characters. However, this all changes in the second half, which is set almost entirely in a single, desolate wasteland setting. Gone are the extravagant set-pieces, to be replaced by far more verbose speeches and the philosophising on men’s ills by Timon.
The central characters are all portrayed brilliantly. British theatre royalty Simon Russell Beale perfectly presents the shifting moods of the eponymous Timon, Hilton McRae is beautifully dry as the cynic Apemantus, and Deborah Findlay as Timon’s assistant stays resiliently earnest.
Overall, this wry look at man’s relationship with money and the misery it causes seems as apt now in London as it did in Shakespeare’s time or indeed, in ancient Athens. The play is handled expertly by Hytner on an interesting stage and with expert performances almost everywhere you look.
By Andy Burrows
For those who haven’t been to the National Theatre, it is well worth it. Set in the heart of the Southbank, it has a stream of brilliant productions on. I ate at the Mezzanine restaurant in the theatre itself, and the pork belly main I had was delicious.
Tickets are still available for this production of Timon of Athens. You can buy them here.