Simon Paisley Day
Timon of Athens might be classed as Shakespeares forgotten play. Barely scraping into the First Folio of 1623, when its compilers encountered copyright problems with Troilus and Cressida, most performances since have been of revised versions produced by later writers. Even today it remains rarely staged.
The reason is simply because it is different. Telling of the benevolent Timon who bestows wealth on all whom he meets, until he retreats from society altogether following bankruptcy and everyones refusal to help, it follows none of the formulae of other Shakespeare plays. Placed outside of a love-plot or story of family honour, Timon has frequently been dismissed as lacking the human interest of a Macbeth or a Lear.
And yet, as the programme here argues, the message of Timon is far more relevant today than that of, say, Richard III or Hamlet. Few of us are ever likely to face a sword or an axe, but bankruptcy, and the isolation from society that can accompany it, are ever present threats. Indeed, coming in the midst of a credit crunch, this production of Timon the last of the four Shakespeare plays in this year’s Totus Mundus season would seem to have a particularly relevant ring.
On entering the Globe, the over-riding atmosphere was bleak and rather oppressive, a space from which the audience had as little chance of escaping as the main protagonist. Lucy Bailey once shrouded this space in black, blotting out the light, for her memorable production of Titus Andronicus and this time around netting had been hung from the buildings roof, making the theatre feel somewhat like an aviary. Throughout actors dressed as birds perched overhead, symbolising the threat of Timons friends’ swooping down like vultures.
The costume designs were medieval, symbolising the roots of the play in this frequently savage and violent world, and the set also drew inspiration from the paintings of Bosch, with their depictions of hell, and Cranach, with the spiked wheel that one man was executed on emulating the Catherine wheels found in his pictures.
But if the staging was dramatic, the production was only partially successful. The concept felt stronger than its actors, and Simon Paisley Day as Timon struggled to make his presence felt. His innocent benevolence failed to strike a chord over the orgy-like opening scenes with their alluring dancing, and he too often resorted to large, unsubtle hand gestures. Similarly, Bo Poraj as Timons friend, Apemantus, appeared too immersed in the action himself to come across as the cool detached voice of reason.
Both performances picked up in the second half, however, and here Paisley Day really came into his own, as his character is freed from the dramatic distractions of society. Unfortunately, though the actors seemed to find their groove, the mood of the piece was marred by a number of scenes being served up with a huge dollop of (quite literally) toilet humour. To be fair this generated much amusement in the audience, but the second half could have been far more powerful had it been played straight down the board.
I have a hunch that, with the current credit crunch and the general air of economic gloom, it was felt that a certain levity was required to offset the play’s dark message. But, to me, here was a chance to put on a Shakespeare play that could resonate with a modern audience like no other. These flaws were enough to turn what might have been a superb production into merely a good one.