Timon of Athens

  • Theatre
  • West End
Critics' choice
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© Johan Persson

This summer we've been deluged with productions of 'Henry V' – the play in which a young king called Harry slaughters the French before getting busy with their best princess has, apparently, been deemed an apposite choice of Shakespeare to programme in Jubilee/Olympic year.

Triumphalism aside, the harder story of 2012 has been mounting anger at financial institutions and bankers. So it's a wonder we've had to wait until now to get a revival of 'Timon of Athens', Shakespeare's strange tragedy about a philanthropic Greek nobleman whose 'friends' abandon him when he runs out of dosh. True, this occasionally crude morality drama is not Shakespeare at his most eloquent. But Nicholas Hytner's production is so relevant that it feels bizarre that it hasn't had other major revivals this year (I'm looking at you, RSC).

Simon Russell Beale's sympathetic Timon is a gentle, awkward man who refuses to see that the elegant society folk he surrounds himself with are rapacious shits who only want his cash. The only true friend at his parties is Hilton McRae's craggily impressive philosopher Apemantus, portrayed here more as a mischief-maker than misery-guts, and deeply concerned for his old chum.

Hytner's production has savage fun with the sycophants and cronies who swarm around Timon – Tom Robertson's braying, coked-up Sloane of a Ventidius is almost indecently funny. Its attack on the corrupting influence of money is so pleasingly vicious that it's tempting to imagine it's part-inspired by Hytner's own corporate schmoozing on behalf of the NT.

Of course, he's been more successful than poor Timon, who vainly begs for aid from his parasitical friends when he goes bust. Key is Paul Bentall's self-important Lucullus, here a City financier, who callously rejects Timon with the words 'this is no time to lend money, especially upon bare friendship, without security' as topical a line as you'll find on any stage anywhere right now.

The first half is almost flawless: lean, lucid, funny and angry, building to the monumentally cathartic dinner party in which a vengeful Timon gathers his old cronies and serves them plates of excrement (stones, in the original text). The inescapable problems of the play emerge in the peculiar second half, in which Timon, broke and misanthropic, conveniently stumbles across a stash of gold and proceeds to grumble about it.

Russell Beale portrays him as a man who has traded one fantasy for another, now melodramatically refusing to believe there is anything good left in human society. It's a typically smart, psychological turn from Russell Beale, but his woe-is-me posturing does robs the production of some of its righteous ire.

Nonetheless, playing in the JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch-supported National Theatre, in the Travelex-sponsored Olivier, where preferential booking is offered to American Express cardholders, this feels thrillingly near the knuckle.

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