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Timon of Athens

Shakespeare Survey 53, Robert Smallwood

Following Antony and Cleopatra onto Stratford’s main stage, the first time it has been seen there since 1965 (there was an Other Place version in 1980), was Timon of Athens in a production by Gregory Doran, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, with Michael Pennington in the title role. The production used a 1960s Duke Ellington score for the play and its late-night, slightly sleazy style provided an appropriately satiric mood for the rather decadent, superficial world represented in the first half of the play. Set and costumes looked vaguely 17th-century, sometimes more Restoration than Jacobean, but later elements were superimposed: there was something more Dickensian about the splendid scene of the creditors milling round Timon’s door; a massage-parlour was the setting for one of Timon’s servant appeal for funds; and Timon’s dinner party presented the masque of Amazons as a high-camp drag show, with Apemantus, in dark glasses, addressing his acerbic commentary into a microphone, so that it, too, perhaps a little unfortunately, became just another sham performance. For the second half the stage was cleared all the way to the stunningly toplit bare brick back-wall of the theatre, with Timon down-stage centre in a hole in the floor that was a cave, and gold-mine, and grave all at once – a splendidly impressive stage image.

A directorial intervention in the first half had one of the followers of Alcibades take a particular fancy to one of the dancers in the masque of Amazons; we saw him rebuffed, then drawing a dagger as he followed his fancy from the stage; he reappeared a little later as the soldier for whose life Alcibades pleads before the Athenian Senate. It is one of the problems of Timon of Athens that the role of Alcibades is so fragmentary. Rupert Penry-Jones brought a dashing glamour to the part (though he was vocally disappointing until provided with a microphone into which to shout his orders in the final assault on the city); to have him plead for a man who has killed another for rejecting his sexual advances and to describe it as ‘noble fury and fair spirit, / Seeing his reputation touched’ seemed to me not only a little far fetched, but positively counter-productive in providing what the play so obviously needs, a little more justification for Timon’s commitment to the cause of Alcibades. One also wondered about the drag-show cabaret: if the masque is indeed Timon’s ‘own device’ might it not have been worth exploring the idea of his sexual preference a little further? A closet desire to buy male companionship might be a way of exploring Timon’s hopeless failures of judgement in choosing ‘friends’. But the idea simply came and went. I was uncertain, too, about Richard McCabe’s rather ‘hip’ Apemantus. Whether or not we are to take the Folio’s ‘churlish philosopher’ exactly at face value, the part seems to deserve a little more weight that it here received: the shades and microphone of the first half becomes shades, straw hat, beach-towel, and sun-tan oil for the visit to Timon in exile, which rather robbed him of gravitas, though perhaps there is something to be said for the idea of Apemantus as a sort of day-tripper misogynist who really belongs in the city he pretends to despise. The supporting role that worked brilliantly was John Woodvine’s Flavius, all quiet decency and dogged devotion. The final image of him standing, head bowed, after reading Timon’s tombstone inscription (a textual change from the unnamed soldier, giving Flavius’ role an ending through depriving Timon of the anonymity he craves), with Alcibades astride the stage on a sort of flying bridge and Apemantus watching him from his usual oblique angle, was very fine.

But after all it was for Michael Pennington’s Timon that the production mattered. In the first half he showed him with an almost desperate need for companionship, an ostentatious bonhomie, and a craving for sycophantic thanks. He glowed and simpered at a little round of applause that his generosity provoked, like some minor monarch distributing favours and basking in the gratitude. There was something a little narcissistic about it all, something excessive, and also something oddly distancing, his gifts, perhaps deliberately, creating a space between himself and their recipients, so that the excesses, and the isolation, of the second half seemed to follow on believably from what we had seen in the first: it was not hard to suppose that such a man could flip in this way. His speaking of the great curse on Athens that ended the first half was masterly. As he stood by a skeletal representation of the city’s walls one watched, and heard, the character discover the power of language, every word made to count, every phase, apparently effortlessly, sent zinging round the theatre, the great swooping rhythms ridden with tremendous power, the words, perfectly believably, metamorphosing into shrieks and howls at moments of unsuppressible emotion. It was the command of vocal variety that carried him through what could easily be the monotony of the sequence of accursed visitors to his downstage pit in the second half. The clarity, energy, and grace of his speaking as he stood there naked but for a loin-cloth was at its most impressive in his epitaph upon himself, its sense of weary peace and willing letting-go, its poignant simplicity, making it hauntingly moving. The big two-hander with Apemantus was sizzling with verbal energy, the strange phrases they come up with seeming new-minted: ‘the bleak brook, candied with ice’, ‘women nearest, men are the things themselves’; and the extraordinary sequence ‘if thou wert the lion the fox would beguile thee’, which might easily be read as merely sardonic and contemptuous, had a sort of wistful sweetness about it that was a revelation. It was a joy to hear again in Stratford, the variety, and the power of Michael Pennington’s speaking of Shakespearean verse.

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