Year of Shakespeare: Timon of Athens at the National Theatre

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Timon of Athens, National Theatre, Dir. Nicholas Hynter at the Olivier, National Theatre, 14 July 2012

By Emily Linnemann, Shakespeare Institute

It seems remarkably apt, given my post here last week, that I should review this production of Timon of Athens, which cast Timon as, first and foremost, a patron of the arts. The connection between art and money, sponsor and sponsored was writ large across this production. From its opening scene in the Timon Room of the National Gallery to the Damien Hirst-style ‘Square Spot Painting’ adorning the wall of Ventidius’s club, the economic realities of cultural production in the twenty-first century were constantly underlined.

But it was not only this problematic relationship on which the production focused. Overburdened with contemporary references, Nicholas Hytner’s production at the National Theatre encompassed within its surprisingly snappy running time the Occupy movement, corruption at Westminster, the London riots, the credit crunch and, of course, those dastardly bankers. The production was unequivocal in its insistence on Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s?) relevance to contemporary issues and searing in its attack on money; those who have it; those who desire it and the way in which it seeps unavoidably into the social, cultural and political fabric of twenty-first-century Britain.

Before the play proper began, the audience watched as hooded figures gathered in a tent city, reminiscent of the Occupy movement’s residence outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The tents were then hidden by a huge piece of scenery flying in from above which depicted the different scenes of Timon’s Athens.

Or perhaps that should be Timon’s London, since the setting was so clearly contemporary Britain. Tom Robertson’s Ventidius, straight from the set of Made in Chelsea, spent his time in an exclusive Soho club. Lucullus (Paul Bentall) was the owner-manager of a capital investment fund. A gender-switched Sempronia (Lynette Edwards) was a slippery politician, complete with sycophantic special advisors. The wall that descended at the beginning of the play allowed us into this world of privilege and power.  The audience could not help but be aware, however, of the tents lying just behind this facade.

As the tent city vanished we found ourselves in an art gallery, at the opening of the ‘Timon Room’. A huge painting hung in the middle of the wall, depicting Jesus expelling the moneylenders from the temple. This image presided over a drinks reception, at which the great and the good of Athens have gathered to celebrate Timon’s patronage of this arts.

Timon was constantly swamped by a bevy of followers, wherever he turned, so they turned, calling his name and begging for attention. These supplicants were almost suffocating, pressing around him in an attempt to gain favour. Even when he had become Timon the man-hater, he never managed to escape this crowd. He was followed first by paparazzi, desperate for a shot of a fallen man, then by debt-collectors, trying in vain to reclaim their money and finally by Alcibiades and his rebels.

Russell Beale portrayed Timon as someone desperate for approval, too easily convinced of the affection of others and remarkably open with his own; choking back tears as he welcomed his beloved guests to dinner. His fall was one from naivety to cynicism and the contrast between his two states was emphasised in his changing physicality. In the first half of the play, Timon moved easily across the Olivier’s huge stage, swept along by his tide of followers. As the reality of his situation was made clear to him, Timon became increasingly frantic and bitter. At the second dinner party, Timon served up covered plates to his fair-weather friends. On lifting their cloches, they found their plates piled high with excrement which Timon proceeded to smear on the bald-headed Lucullus, shouting and raving at the disgusted and confused guests. (This connection between Timon and turds is not the first to be drawn by a theatre director – Lucy Bailey’s 2008 production at the Globe provides a more shocking example). Maddened by grief and unable to check his extreme anger, Russell Beale delivered the soliloquy that followed as a conjuration, full of bile, violently calling down curses upon the city he once loved.

In the second half of the play, Timon became a shuffling, bumbling tramp, living on a deserted construction site and rummaging through rubbish bags to find food. All they yielded was fast food packaging which Timon strewed across the stage. He was surrounded by the waste products of excessive consumption but was unable to find any nourishment. In desperation, he pulled open a drain cover and found a hidden stash of gold. The yellow light exuding from the drain illuminated Timon’s face eerily. It was clear that this gold, found in a sewer, would not do Timon any good. But Timon alone understands its uselessness, ‘I cannot eat it’ he tells Alcibiades (IV.iii.101).

It is with Alcibiades and his followers that the play begins to buckle under the weight of continual contemporary reference. They are, at first, presented as the hooded occupants of the tent city seen at the beginning of the play. But unlike the real Occupy residents, these protesters aim to be part of the capitalist system from which they are currently disenfranchised. They ‘want’ gold (IV.iii.92). But this ‘want’ is not only to be understood as lack or need. They didn’t just want gold for what it could do for them (its exchange value). They actively desired the possession of it for its own sake, as an object in and of itself. The rebels thus had less to do with the ‘occupy movement’ and much to do with the rioters of August 2011, angry not because they wanted to eradicate consumerism and corporate greed, but because they are unable to take part in the consumption process. Their values remained the same as the capitalist companions of Timon’s former life.

The final scene of the play became a coalition-style negotiation between Alcibiades and the brokers of power who had previously spurned Timon. With an agreement reached, Alcibiades sat at a press conference table and delivered his final speech direct to camera:

Bring me into your city
And I will use the olive with my sword,
Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each
Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.
Let our drums strike (V.v.86-90)

In my notes taken that evening, I have written that two words were added at the end of this speech – ‘for liberty’. The next day, I searched for an explanation or justification of this interpolation, but could find none. Had I imagined it? The ephemeral nature of theatre means that I might never find out.

Whether these two interpolated words were or were not spoken, however, the final image of the production left no doubt about who was really in charge of Athens/London. The lights dimmed on the stage and behind Alcibiades and his new coalition partners an image of Canary Wharf – that towering monument to capitalism – became visible, suggesting that freedom from the all-powerful influence of gold was harder come by than Alcibiades would have had his audience of journalists believe.

In this production, concept was king. The overlaid contemporary relevance stretched (sometimes to breaking point) to all elements of the play. Under Hytner’s direction it became, as one woman sitting next to me commented, ‘a morality tale’ for our time. That this moral was hammered home so repeatedly and heavy-handedly and not left to the audience to infer may be what has led another reviewer to comment that it was like being ‘hit […]over the head with the First Folio’. A rarely-performed play which I felt might not have been taken off the shelf and dusted off, had it not been for the fact that 2012 is, as Lucullus tells Flaminius, ‘no time to lend money’ (III.ii.41-2).


What do you think about this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the comments below!

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

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Author:Emily Linnemann

Emily completed a PhD at the Shakespeare Institute investigating the cultural value of Shakespeare in publicly-funded theatre. She now works as an events organiser but maintains an active interest in the values surrounding cultural production, public funding and Shakespeare.
  • Helen Osborne

    I agree with Charlie – marvellous performance from Simon Russell Beale.

    I had the benefit of going to the pre-show talk with him, so Emily, I think I can help with your question about the addition of that ‘liberty’ line – apparently they interpolated several lines from both Coriolanus (for elements that pointed up the civic unrest) and As You Like It (for those to do with banishment etc). It may be that the line you remember being added at the end of Alcibiades’ speech was from AYLI – ‘now go we in content / To liberty and not to banishment’. I think it’s an interesting strategy, and I got the impression from the talk that it’s by no means unusual to cherry-pick lines from other plays and stitch them in like this (certainly at the National – perhaps elsewhere too?) but it does occassionally mean that some lines stand out to me oddly, as this one seems to have.

    Whatever the failings of the production may have been, I forgive it everything for the soliloquy where Timon curses Athens – an incredibly powerful moment very well handled, with the oppressive golden brown lighting and the mist rolling in around him. Then again, perhaps telling that this moment was one of few that seemed free of moral set-dressing.

  • Charles Morton

    I thought this was an absolutely incredible production. I saw it last night, so I might still be in the post-show glow mood, but I could not fault this production.

    First of all, the obvious issue of the relevance to society (being of a left-wing political persuasion myself) I found it a stunningly (if sadly unsurprisingly) accurate appraisal of the current problems.

    Simon Russell Beale was immense as Timon. For a man who has to carry the show in the second half (performing for about 50 minutes without leaving the stage), every moment was both (as noted in the review) wonderfully coreographed and the emotional aspects of the character were thought out perfectly.

    The tirade against Athens was spectacular. The raw emotion of the piece, possibly not completed in its time, lent it a devastating emotional punch at the end, and indeed throughout, as the character of Apemantus showed, the separation between civility and hostility is a fine line, and one, once crossed, that it is uneasy to reverse. The exchange of insults between Apemantus and Timon was, I thought, rather moving in its unmasked venom; it became almost a sign of respect between the two characters.

    The confusion of the ‘morality play’ aspect to the play is, of course, that it is not a happy ending. There is no sense of resolution. It is, rather, a reflection upon our time, upon Shakespeare and Middleton’s time, and one which does not resolve the issue of the corrupting power of money, but rather shows us an extreme case, and makes us ask questions of ourselves.

    A new favourite play of mine.

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