Timon of Athens is Shakespeare's strangest play. Generally accepted that it was written in partnership with Thomas Middleton, it tells the story of a man betrayed by his friends and turning his back on society, his country and all humanity. Nicholas Hytner's exciting new production captures the essence of Timon the man, while not losing sight of the political conditions that created him.
As has now been widely reported, Hytner's concept draws parallels with contemporary events. In a world reeling from successive financial scandals, optimistic punts and tycoons living beyond their means, Timon seems a kindred spirit, and Alcibiades' rebel army is now a bunch of masked anti-capitalist protestors.
The play opens with the dedication of a Timon room at a gallery (where, with unsubtle irony, El Greco's painting of Christ driving the moneylenders from the Temple hangs on the wall). Timon is quickly surrounded by a crowd of hangers-on all hoping to benefit from his largesse, sowing the seeds of his misfortune.
Simon Russell Beale is a masterful Timon, all back-slapping bonhomie at the start but fearsome in the depths of his misanthropic misery. Russell Beale captures well Timon's rapid descent into self-disgust and bitterness, pawing through rubbish tips, scratching himself furiously while railing against the world.
It seems a stark contrast to his former life but as Apemantus points out, Timon has known only two extremes of humanity: great wealth (and greed) and direst poverty (and an absence of human warmth). We're presented with two sides of the coin and Russell Beale reminds us that abnormal pursuit of great wealth can be as detrimental as the absence of that wealth.
The supporting cast is excellent: Deborah Findlay as Timon's steward gives a touching display of fidelity. Hilton McCrae is suitably cynical as the philosopher, Apemantus, whle Paul Bentall is a particularly creepy and manipulative Lucullus. Tom Robertson's smoothly mendacious Ventidius garmers most of the laughs as he thinks of excuses not to pay Timon the money he has asked for.
Hytner's vision is especially strong at the end of the play. It doesn't end outside Athens but with the assimilation of Alcibiades into the Athenian elite. It's a smoothly-handled transfer of power, with rebel and establishment sitting together, reminiscent of the final lines of Animal Farm. Timon's death is treated almost as a joke, a minor distraction on the way to a smooth handover of power. One senses the whole cycle is about to begin again, with more Timons set to emerge from the financial wreckage.