"It's one lo-ong howl of disgust and outrage": National Theatre of London stage director Nicholas Hytner describes his company's modern dress production of Shakespeare's troubling play Timon of Athens with pride and a hint of anticipatory warning. Indeed, it's a perfect example of how Shakespeare's work holds apt relevance for today's issues. Written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Shakespeare's bizarre journey of descent and disintegration is described on the National Theatre Live site as "a fable of consumption, debt and ruin."
Hytner's meaty production sets the somber play in a contemporary version of Athens, in the midst of an Occupy-style revolt contrasted against the obscene wealth and lifestyle opulence of the banker class (Athenian upper class). The play opens on Occupy tents scattered across a bare stage, as the smoothly coiffed, well-heeled 1 percent carefully pick their way through the jumble with dismissive disdain to make their way downstage to celebrate an Art Gallery champagne reception honoring their "dear friend," arts patron and benefactor, Timon.
A kinder, gentler version of Bernie Madoff without the sleazy Ponzi scheme, Timon seems oblivious to the vulgar sycophancy of his greedy entourage, who follow him only to acquire more "gifts." Veteran stage actor Simon Russell Beale creates a fascinating Timon, a member of the moneyed class who somehow floats above their grasping vulgarity with bemused detachment and generosity of spirit befitting a saint. But once his cash cornucopia runs out and the fawning wolves turn on him, he withdraws in deeply betrayed rage.
Act II takes him into a dystopic, expressionistic madness, a Dante-like descent into some Hell circle in the sewer catacombs of the city he once graced as a beneficent prince:
I am Misanthropos and hate mankind.
For my part, I do wish thou wert a dog
That I might love thee something.
As palpably out of touch as Beale's Timon appears in Act I, nattily attired, manicured and courteous to a fault, he becomes a grotesque epitome of seedy homeless filth and seething rage in Act II. Never once does he lose the audience's empathy or his firm grasp of the lyrical sense of Shakespeare/Middleton's language, in spite of the huge arc his character travels and the disparity of personality aspects he explores. What a superb performance—easy to see how he is considered the greatest British stage actor of his generation.
Wonderful supporting performances buoy the production to its chilling finale of continuous ruin: Lynette Edwards as Sempronia and Paul Higgins as contrarian Apemantus interact most effectively with Beale's Timon. The foreboding elegance of the uncomplicated set design, essentialist and spare but massive and overwhelming all at once, shows the creative genius of the National Theatre's artistic team (Scenic Designer Tim Hatley; lighting designer Bruno Poet; music composer Grant Olding; sound designer Christopher Shutt) to unrivaled advantage.
Love classical Shakespeare and crave contemporary issue dramas, too? Timon of Athens fills the bill with style, substance and the pressing horror of current events.
◊ Timon of Athens has several more local showings:
- 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 20 at Angelika Film Center Plano
- 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28, presented by Amphibian Stage Productions at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth
◊ Here's a video preview: