It's easy to see why Timon of Athens is so infrequently performed. The story of the rich Athenian, who is taken advantage of by fawners and flatterers only to be cold-shouldered when he runs out of money, runs out of steam about halfway through.
Indeed, the second half of the play is a succession of monologues by an increasingly bitter and misanthropic Timon, in his self-imposed exile in the forest outside of Athens. These monologues are interrupted only by a series of short scenes with fellow Athenians quick to flock round him once word is out that he has discovered gold. It's clear that Shakespeare has nothing more to say and Timon's railings against the iniquities of the world become tiresome long before his death.
But, although the play is incomplete as a dramatic spectacle, in many ways it is one of the most modern of Shakespearean plays: the theme of sycophancy is a strong one (just look at the coterie of advisors and spin doctors that are now deemed part of any serious politician's entourage) and so is the one of the corrupting power of money, which was a relative new concept in the bard's time.
The plot in many ways is like a less subtle version of Lear. Except that Timon, having seen what happens when deserted by his flatterers and with no possessions, doesn't have the redemption of Cordelia's love. Gregory Doran's production takes a nod towards the moralistic. This is an empire living in decadent times (Timon's first banquet features a drag act and there's a scene set in a massage parlour), and you have to wonder why Brecht never adapted this play as it seems ripe for the Brechtian treatment.
Michael Pennington is a powerful Timon. Deep in his misery, he spews out his hatred for mankind in the richest of tones, although he seems remarkably robust for someone living out in the open on raw roots. And his death seems bizarre, with no sign of weakness or failing health, he appears to simply fall asleep. There's no sense that he's truly had enough of the world - there's still more cursing to do.
Elsewhere, John Woodvineis excellent as the faithful steward, Flavius, the Kent to Timon's Lear. And Richard McCabe is a wonderfully cynical Apemantus, the philosopher who sees through the flatterers. Rupert Penry Jones is perhaps a little too stiff as Alcibiades, the soldier who raises an army against his own city.
Even if it's not the most impressive play in the Shakespearean canon, Timon of Athens is an interesting and worthwhile one. Let's hope we don't have to wait 20 years for the next production of this strange, bleak play.
Note: The following review dates from the production's original 1999 run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford. It opens in London on 1 March 2000.
This summer the RSC has saved the best till last. Timon of Athens is an obscure play that is rarely performed, but Gregory Doran's production succeeds in making you think, for two and a half hours at least, that this is Shakespeare at his finest.
This is a sparkling, intelligent and absorbing staging of an intriguing play about money and friendship. In the first half, Timon is rich and the most generous of men. He lavishes extravagant gifts upon friends and flatterers, poets and painters. He hosts prodigal parties with spectacular entertainments for his wide circle of male friends - significantly, this play has no major role for a woman. When the money runs out, his hollow friends abandon Timon to utter ruin.
In the second half, the colour and resplendence have been replaced with a bare stage. In a landscape reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, we find Timon outside of Athens, destitute, digging for roots to eat, visited in turn by various friends and foes. When he finds gold, he knows its worthlessness. The relevance of this play about materialistic greed and superficial love is clear and Shakespeare speaks as our contemporary.
Doran is fortunate in his cast. When Alan Bates, who was to have played Timon, was forced to withdraw and his place was taken at the last minute by Michael Pennington, the RSC offered ticket-holders a refund. They should have imposed a surcharge! Pennington is magnificent in the title role, both as munificent benefactor and embittered recluse. He is strongly supported by John Woodvine as Timon's honest steward Flavius, Richard McCabe as Apemantus the misanthropic observer, and Rupert Penry-Jones as Alcibiades the handsome young general and lover.
In the first half, there is plenty of the spectacle one expects from Doran and his designer Stephen Brimson Lewis. In a witty and wonderful high-camp masque, four virile youths in Amazon drag descend from the flies and dance lasciviously with the Athenians, whilst an over-blown, over-aged and over-weight Eros hangs above them, complete with huge and sumptuously feathered wings.
The incidental music used was composed by Duke Ellington for a production of Timon at Stratford, Ontario in 1963. Adapted by John Woolf, this is played by a live nine-man band. Immediately after the overture, I feared that this splendid music might overpower a minor play, but such is the strength of Doran's production and the quality of the acting that there is never any danger of this.
All the elements of the drama are beautifully balanced. Neither the music nor the spectacle is allowed to get in the way of substance, and this is a really substantial interpretation of this play. If you are going to see Timon of Athens only once in your life, this is the production to see.
Timon of Athens opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, in Stratford-upon-Avon, 24 August 1999 (previews from 5 August) and continued in repertory until 9 October.