'Timon of Athens' is hardly top of the list of 'must produce' plays and so is rarely seen on stage. The last time I saw it was back in 2008 at the Globe. Assumed to be written by Shakespeare along with his contemporary, Thomas Middleton, the play has some anomalies and irritations, and some scholars have suggested that it is an unfinished work which may never have been produced in Shakespeare's lifetime.
In this version, the National's artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, is at the directorial helm, and he has co-opted Simon Russell Beale (who has recently been seen as Falstaff in the excellent BBC series 'The Hollow Crown') for the central role of Timon. That kind of pedigree raises expectations, and the result does not disappoint.
Timon is a seemingly wealthy citizen of Athens. He throws money and gifts around with the abandon of a man who has completely taken leave of his senses. 'Every man has his faults' says one of his friends, 'and generosity is his'. Timon's generosity knows absolutely no bounds. He bails friends out of prison and when they pay him back he tears up the cash. He throws lavish parties and doles out expensive jewels as gifts to his dinner guests. However, as his steward informs us Timon is broke because of his profligate spending. More than that, he owes money to others and the debts are being called-in. When Timon discovers that he is nearly bankrupt he sends messages to his friends to borrow from them. But they refuse, even though they have all previously benefited from Timon's largesse. Faced with this rejection, Timon has a complete change of heart. He becomes a misanthrope and leaves Athens to be alone.
Bringing Shakespeare into the twenty-first century doesn't always work satisfactorily, but in Mr Hytner's vision, 'Timon of Athens' becomes a moving and relevant play of our very own era. The Athenians are modern men in grey and black suits who could easily be reckless bankers, or even corrupt politicians. We first meet Timon in an art gallery where a whole room has been dedicated to him and, presumably, his generosity. The play, though, starts with a protest camp. Cast your mind back to the 'Occupy London Stock Exchange' protests around St Paul's Cathedral and Finsbury Square in London's financial district in the recent past and you will be thinking along the right lines. And after his financial ruin, Timon seeks sanctuary in a recently-started building site littered with concrete blocks from which protrude those long, metal reinforcing rods which stretch up like enormous fingers from graves.
Simon Russell Beale makes the difficult transition from genial benefactor to bitter misanthrope readily believable and astutely relevant. His Timon is a man of extremes who is ultimately brought to a near child-like state where he seems oblivious of the value of anything, including gold as well as his own life. There's excellent support on display, in particular from Deborah Findlay as Flavia, Timon's long-suffering Steward, and from Hilton McRae as the cynical philosopher Apemantus.
Like its central character, the play itself also has its faults. In particular, we do not learn why Timon feels he has to be so generous, and we learn even less about his personal history or any other aspect of his character. And when Timon finds out that his friends won't help him his sudden and extreme change of heart is strangely abrupt and his hatred of mankind is unrealistically unerring and absolute. But all that doesn't seem to matter too much here because Simon Russell Beale is so hugely convincing. That, combined with Nicholas Hytner's powerful direction, brings a refreshing and intriguing perspective to a much-neglected play.
"Exhilarating production featuring a compelling central performance by Simon Russell Beale"
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens tends to be dismissed as one of his clunkers. This production – at least its astonishingly topical first half – should correct that theory."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Nicholas Hytner has seized the cynical, disillusioned day. He hurls Timon into the 21st century and finds it lands there almost perfectly."
Dominic Cavendish for The Daily Telegraph