Canary Wharf, the business sector of London, high-flying men and women gathering at Lord Timon’s table, impressed once more at this great man’s generosity. Yet his well-intentioned steward looks on in dismay at the lavish feast and expensive gifts being lavished upon these guests. That is the (updated) premise of Shakespeare’s little known Timon of Athens, written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton.
The Olivier Theatre is a spectacle on its own, with its huge auditorium and well-known revolve, but it is used to great effect in the current production of Timon of Athens. Shifting from offices, to banquet rooms, to the slums of London, the design by Tim Hatley was seamless in both its relevance to the text and the transitions between scenes. Accompanied by impressive sound by Christopher Shutt, the atmosphere truly set the stage for this intriguing story of the darkness of human nature.
Timon was taken on by Simon Russell Beale, who has graced London stages in a number of shows including Twelfth Night at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 and Collaborators at the National in 2011. The character of Timon appears to be a simple one at first – a generous businessman who likes nothing better than to have his friends around him, enjoying the bounty of his wealth. But Beale takes it to a deeper level, revealing insecurities and sinking into a resounding bitterness that makes the audience ache for humanity and the restoration of hope.
The huge cast of other characters who flaunt around Timon’s expansive estate were all equally complex, not only through Shakespeare’s words, but also through the actors’ choices. Two in particular – Nick Sampson as the Poet and Penny Layden as the Painter – showed themselves able to hold their own in a distinctive way. These two personas act almost as the clowns in this play, bouncing off one another whilst constantly commenting on the other people around them, and Sampson and Layden were striking without overdoing it. Similarly, Hilton McRae was an astonishing Apemantus, the begrudging philosopher who sees through the facades of Timon’s ‘friends’. A mixture of Jaques-esque melancholy, and devilish insult, McRae moved from first act villain to second act comrade with undemonstrative minimalism.
Behind all the sleek curtains and chic sofas lies the rebelling Athens, and the youths that rest within – the number of actors onstage reaching close to thirty when the hooded masses surround fleeing suits. This, along with an unexpected but beautifully choreographed (Edward Watson) ballet piece, made Timon of Athens an intriguing, insightful, and slightly alarming portrayal of greed, blackmail, and corruption, set dangerously close to home. Directed by Nicholas Hytner, and lined up for screening as part of NTLive in November, this is a show that is as powerful as it is entertaining.