Excessive largesse can end in tears. Well, that seems to be the message of this rarely produced play, which is thought to have been a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton.
In a sense, it's no wonder that 'Timon of Athens' is rarely performed - at least in a major production such as this one at the Globe. This isn't one of Shakespeare's best or most interesting offerings, but it's not easy to define why. There are some well-written sections, but the basic idea is focused and condensed without any sub-plots to give any relief from the main story line. And the second act is rather static with long, bitter speeches from Timon, even if it is much shorter.
When Timon decides to have a feast for his friends, we instantly recognise a man whose generosity seems to know no bounds and who simply loves to give. And give, and give, and give! For example, he bails out a friend from prison with a massive amount of gold, and doles out sparkling jewels to his mates. Timon's steward, Flavius (well played by Patrick Godfrey) is concerned about how much all this giving is costing, because much of the cash that underpins this generosity is borrowed. I'm sure you can see where this is heading.
The credit crunch strikes when Timon can't raise a bean from any of the very same friends to whom he gave so much. The result is that Timon becomes almost demented, and goes off in despair to live in the woods on his own, bemoaning his fate and the nature of humanity.
Director Lucy Bailey and designer William Dudley also seem to have noted some shortcomings with the play, and decided to give it a bit of a lift, or perhaps a 'safety net' is a more apt description. What they've done is to have a large net stretched over the yard in order to have actors dressed as crows trample all over it, and even fall through it - on safety harnesses of course. The effect is interesting and imaginative even if it encompasses some distractions. For example, the essential safety requirements of lanyards and harnesses mean that moving about on the net, or clambering up ladders to get to it and the platforms constructed around the stage pillars, is rather noisy. Nevertheless, it's an innovative take on the play and again shows the immense flexibility of the Globe's space and the way in which it can be adapted for almost anything.
'Timon of Athens' is a play of two halves - the first is pretty exuberant and jolly at least until Timon's debts get called in, but the second half is darker and much more sombre. All the cast prove highly capable, particularly those who have to wrestle with the acrobatics. But it's Simon Paisley Day's play since he takes on the gruelling role of Timon. Paisley Day makes the transition from genial and generous giver to solitary hater of all things human, seem quite effortless. And in the second half, he even manages to defecate on his new-found hoard of gold before handing it to others whilst keeping a straight face. Quite a feat!
Audience reaction to this year's season at the Globe has been terrific, but I wondered if it was going to be quite the same with 'Timon of Athens'. The audience, however, seemed delighted by it, and there was a rousing and well-deserved reception for Simon Paisley Day at the end.
I suppose the lingering question is whether the Globe's decision to produce 'Timon of Athens' was justified. I think it was because this, after all, is Shakespeare's Globe, and it would indeed be strange if over a period of time, the venue didn't aim to tackle most of Shakespeare's plays. Though the play itself is not as worthy as others, and has a second half which is rather tedious, the directorial vision and design concept give the production a novel and interesting twist, and the necessary fillip. There aren't many theatres that could pull-off this kind of acrobatic concoction, and the risk was most definitely justified. However, I'm not exactly in a hurry to see 'Timon of Athens' again.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICK CURTIS for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "The greatest argument for seeing this may be that it's a rare theatrical curio given a gimmicky staging, but with a sterling central performance." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "For all the visual bravura, I can't help feeling that this most pessimistic and problematic of plays is better suited to intimate studio theatres than to an aggressively social space like Shakespeare's Globe." SERENA DAVIS for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "This production lacks poignancy, and gimmickry has pecked out its heart." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES, " Impressively imaginative production."
Production photo by John Tramper