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August 25, 2008
After years of not knowing what answer to give, I recently finally decided that Timon of Athens is my favourite Shakespeare play. Structurally it's fascinating, built in recurring circles of action that allow examinations of the varoius character types from a variety of angles. The language, as befits a Middleton collaboration, is suitably depraved and visceral, particularly dwelling on images of sexual disease to illustrate the corruption inherent in society. It's incredibly relevant to now (Athens is in the middle of a credit crunch!). The plunge of Timon from bounty to misanthrope is one of the most extreme and dramatic in literature, and there are great characters such as Apemantus and Flavius. Plus, it's short, it's often funny and it's never dull. The centuries of neglect it has received, perhaps fairly down to the unfinished look of the text, have criminally kept an important play from general public consciousness.
So, 2008, and perhaps the first ever production of Timon at the Globe, original or reconstructed. Happily, director Lucy Bailey has done it proud. Perhaps recognising that the unfamiliarity of the play might not appeal to a casual audience, Bailey seems to have been given free rein to adapt the theatre and do something radically different with the space and design. Taking her cue from the play's many references to birds, and to the 'eating' of Timon by his hangers-on, Bailey and designer William Dudley turned the space into a giant, nightmarish aviary, with wire netting covering the roof of the Globe. Before the performance had even begun, actors had begun crawling onto the netting, clicking and cawing at the audience below. Most of the characters, both these extra-textual 'vultures' and Timon's companions, wore costumes that tapered at the bottom into bird's feathers and tails, and the vultures wore feathers all over. Crawling over the gauze and down the pillars of the Globe stage, the image throughout was of birds pecking away at Timon, greedily eating away as they pounced on every discarded coin or piece of food. Most dramatically, holes in the gauze allowed the vultures to bungee down on long cords, hovering over the stage or audience while screaming at us.
The stage itself was also radically redesigned. Extending out in a large semi-circle shape, the audience was partly separated by a pit at extreme downstage, from which billowed vast clouds of smoke that added to the hellish atmosphere. Upstage, meanwhile, a curved concrete wall stood in front of the tiring house (strikingly similar to the sea barriers on the Wirral coast where I grew up, though I wasn't sure if this was what it was meant to be). For the first half both barrier and pit were used in place of furniture in Timon's house - as guests sat down to dinner, they either sat behind the wall and used it as a table, or else they sat in the pit and ate off the main stage. For the second half, however, a new floor of blasted volcanic rock was laid down, with the wall becoming similarly blasted, and with the smoke the impression was of an igneous landscape where nothing could grow, and where Timon was increasingly covered in ash.
In the programme notes, Bailey notes that she had tidied up the text to attempt to clarify storylines, which she achieved intelligently with plenty of added visual material. Here, for example, Alcibiade's friend was present from the start, a fellow soldier who engaged in revellry at Timon's and was clearly beloved of Alcibiades. When pleading for him at the senate, Alcibiades' eyes were continually drawn to his friend, who was seen being dragged up one of the pillars by two of the vultures, handcuffed and beaten. As the vultures prepared to execute him, Alcibiades' pleas were given immediate urgency, his voice becoming ever more panicked as he tried to prevent the death. After the banishment was announced, the friend had his throat cut, messily and bloodily, and his body was left hanging from the pillar as Alcibiades left vowing vengeance. This went a long way towards justifying Alcibiades' rage against Athens in revenge for the murder. Another effective addition was the early introduction of Phrynia and Timandra (in a nice bit of cross-casting, Pippa Nixon and Laura Rogers who played Hermia and Helena in the Globe's Dream), who were part of the group of prostitutes/lap-dancers that replaced Cupid's masque. These two latched on to Alcibiades early in the feast and were seen appearing from under the table after performing fellatio on at least two occasions (hardly enough to justify the ridiculous claims of being the most shocking Shakespeare ever), and followed him ever after, first in fine clothes as they enjoyed his riches, then increasingly tattered after the banishment, justifying their enthusiastic pleas with Timon for more money, orgiastically thrusting it down their tops and allowing Timon to run his hands over their bodies as they cried in ecstasy.
Other additions included expansion of Ventidius, played effectively by Oliver Boot. Ventidius was seen imprisoned at the start, lying on a ledge at the top of a pillar, bloodied and bruised. After his release, Timon dressed him in a white robe that matched his own, and showed him special favours throughout the celebrations, clearly distressed by the whip marks on his back. Later, though, we saw the scene only alluded to in the text, where Flavius approaches Ventidius for relief of Timon's monetary problems. Ventidius, distracted with another prostitute, merely scoffed at Flavius before taking off his white robe and throwing it back, abandoning himself to pleasure. Later, as Timon wept for the friends he had lost, the word 'Ventidius' stuck in his throat, this betrayal too much for him to bear. The doubling of Lucilius, the servant endowed by Timon, with the ungrateful friend Lucius, also allowed this betrayal to take on extra significance in the light of Timon's generosity.
The central performance, Simon Paisley Day's Timon, was excellent. Dressed in white at the start, with long hair tied back and an ever-present beneficent smile, Timon was Jesus-like in his goodness. In his first appearance, entering through the audience, he was preceded by a procession of young women who threw gold coins among the crowd. His generosity was always tempered by his clear indulgence of luxury, made most explicit in the feast. First he allowed his friends to crowd around him on the floor, weeping with feigned gratitude at his generosity until they were assembled en masse in a ridiculous, heaving group of emotion. At the announcement of women, the men quickly dusted themselves off. 'Cupid' descended from the flies, a nubile lap-dancer who teasingly threw darts at the assembled men before a group of other women appeared from the pit, draping themselves over the men, the clear implication being that Timon's feasts were typically orgies, at odds with Timon's Christ-like presentation of himself. His calmness and dignity contrasted effectively with his later, reduced state, as well as complicating our impression of him.
In the second act, dressed in only a loincloth, Timon scrabbled in the dirt and took on several animal characteristics (a mockery of the first act, where he and his friends played a repeated game of acting like dogs and rolling together on the floor). Rather than becoming towering in his rage, Day instead took a more rational approach to Timon's actions, mulling things over and acting in a considered way to achieve the effect he wanted. His treatment of the thoroughly comic Poet and Painter was a case in point - he timed their arrival to coincide with his defecating into a pit, into which he forced the Poet to both step and also reach to retrieve a root he had dropped. He then led them into a situation where he had them jokingly offering to kill themselves, before suddenly becoming serious and looking at them as if to insist that they went through with it. When they failed, he reached into the pit and smeared faeces over their faces in punishment.
The bleak second act was relieved by interesting interpretations of the various vignettes with his visitors. The thieves descended from the overhead gauze, two of them on bungee ropes that allowed them to bounce across the stage and engage in a kind of dance with Timon that saw them acrobatically flipping and being released from him in a ballet of conspiracy, agreeing to his charges. The meeting with the senators was partly farcical as the largest of the men tried to hoist himself over the concrete wall to reach Timon and got stuck, while Flavius (who remained on stage throughout the second act after first coming to Timon, loyally staying with his master) mocked them while chewing on a root. Flavius' first meeting, by contrast, was performed straight, allowing the man and his master their moment of humanity together. Flavius, played by Patrick Godfrey,was relatively elderly and independently-minded, frustrated at his master's ill-management but unwilling to abandon him, and in earlier scenes he had been surprisingly blunt in his dealings with both Timon and the various suitors. The other two servants had also been nicely characterised, particularly Christopher Brandon's Servillius who was given a stutter that the opposing servants cruelly mocked as they harangued him for monies.
Bo Ponaj made for a very effective Apemantus, a dishevelled student with spiky hair, brown dressing gown and satchel who wandered the stage with a constant look of disgust at the excesses of Timon's home. He was mocked throughout by everyone else, his grace being met with a shower of food from the other dinner guests before he was unceremoniously shoved off-stage into the audience (he marched out screaming "Move!" at the assembled public). In the second half, however, he entered in almost joyous mood, laughing outrageously at Timon's new fortune, before realising the severity of the change as Timon began talking about his death and scratching at the small piece of slate he used as a shovel. Showing some sympathy, he tried to give Timon some food and seemed almost reluctant to leave, though always rose to the bait to begin angry arguments afresh. His moderation showed up the extremities of Timon's relative situations, and his comic attitude endeared him to the audience. Gary Oliver's Alcibiades, meanwhile, was a soldier in the Brian Blessed mould, a bellowing man who enjoyed physical pleasures and drew all attention onto himself. When he came to Timon with his women, he was dishevelled and clearly poor, but focussed and ready to sack Athens, yet still showed some sympathy for Timon, allowing his brash facade to soften for a moment.
Despite all this excellent work, I couldn't help but feel that the production dropped the ball at the final moment. Announcing as the senators left that he was at last ready to die, he dug himself a trench in the gravel and laid down in it, placing two coins over his eyes. As he lay, the vultures suddenly appeared, diving onto the body from all angles and rearing up with bloody mouths as they tore him to shreds, finally literally feeding off his carcass. This was interrupted by Alcibiades appearing, addressing the vultures as the people of Athens and throwing them off and away before specifically going after the senators. On the point of killing one of them, Flavius interrupted with news of Timon's death, presenting the piece of slate to Alcibiades who read the epitaph. At this news his fury abated, and instead he led the vultures in a dance of reunification and peace. This entire final scene seemed to only take a couple of minutes, and was a huge anti-climax. The second half had built heavily on the humour inherent in the various meetings with visitors, particularly the Poet and Painter, and as such the audience weren't prepared for the moment of death and continued, to some extent, to laugh as he buried himself. While the reappearance of the vultures and Alcibiades' spurning of them fitted thematically with the aesthetic of the production, the final dance was an untidy resolution, a dramatically weak conclusion to a story that had so abruptly finished. However, this didn't detract too much from a production that had found a genuinely creative interpretation of a difficult play and proved that it works on the stage. A fine production, and always nice to see the Globe subverting audience expectations. More Timons, please.