Timon of Athens, National Theatre (Olivier), London

It would be impossible to review this play in 2012, much less to do so on these pages, without giving due consideration to its contemporary resonances. Director Nicholas Hytner brings these out as deftly as ever, with little more tweakage than the removal of a scene of subplot and the decision to stage in modern dress.

We first see le tout Athens attending the opening of “The Timon Room” in a city gallery. It sets the key for the first phase of the play, with the titular character being fawned over by artists, individuals and civic dignitaries, and being good-naturedly free with his largesse without any awareness that he is giving away money he no longer has. The latter part of the first half, in which Timon’s appeals for aid are rebuffed, sound keenly in a capitalist world beyond the stage in which notions such as reciprocity and trickle-down have been cruelly disproven in practice.

In the second half Hytner’s most significant change comes into its own. An earlier scene in which the Athenian general Alcibiades is banished has been excised; it now seems as if Alcibiades is leading not a military challenge to Athens in revenge, but an uprising of the dispossessed. (At this stage it would not be advisable to push the topical allusions too far by inferring commentary upon the current Greek crisis.) The very end of the play shows Alcibiades being assimilated by the existing Athenian polity to give an appearance of a “new broom” and to cull only those whom the state permits. Timon himself, meanwhile, has died quietly offstage, having railed all he could in his new capacity as a hermit in the wilderness (with a shopping trolley).

Simon Russell Beale, the British stage’s supreme articulator of disgust, is perfectly suited to the central role, especially after Timon’s disillusionment, when he devotes himself to inveighing against all-comers. These include the bluntly cynical Apemantus, whom Hilton McRae steers through some gratuitous early outbursts until his head-to-head with latter-day Timon justifies the character’s inclusion.

Ciarán McMenamin’s Alcibiades leads a raggle-taggle of rebels, and the fickle Athenians range from Tom Robertson’s nice-but-dim richo to Paul Bentall as, here, the CEO of “Lucullan Capital”. It remains one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays, almost certainly co-written with Thomas Middleton and quite possibly unfinished and unstaged in his lifetime, but Hytner makes of it a trenchant play for today. Timon time again, one might say.


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