The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 24.0015 Tuesday, 15 January 2013
Date: January 14, 2013 7:36:53 PM EST
Subject: Pale Fire
Pale Fire: Timon of Athens, directed by Nicholas Hytner (National Theatre Live)
The lights come up, dimly, on a cluster of pitched tents. The time is the present, and this is the Occupy London movement. The One-Percenters do their best to ignore it while pursuing their sybaritic lifestyles: selling junk bonds, snorting coke, hitting on nubile women, etc. Timon is King of the Plutocrats, funding museum wings with one pudgy hand while throwing lavish banquets with the other. The global recession and his own improvidence destroy him. Bankrupt and embittered, he becomes an urban derelict, sleeping on cardboard and crawling through blighted streets. (“Timon will to the woods” is changed to “Timon will to the wilds,” which is not much more appropriate). Since roots do not flourish in concrete and macadam, he does not dig for tubers but sifts through garbage bags instead—not exactly the kind of nutriment supplied by the repeatedly-invoked “Mother Earth.” Of course, director Nicholas Hytner cannot alter Timon’s valedictory salute to the beach and the sea, neither of which is remotely in evidence. These design choices shift the register of the play from the primal to the topical, whereby every perceived gain entails a deeper loss.
The Occupiers, we soon learn, are the followers of Alcibiades, who is now a radical populist rather than a military man. (His scenes in the first half of the play cannot accommodate this change, so they are all cut). Hytner’s attitude towards him is ambiguous. Is he Justice On The March or Jack Cade redivivus? In a final scene meant to suggest co-optation, we see him spruced up and wearing a suit, sitting at a dais while smoothly addressing the nation through a microphone. Michael Bogdanov used a similar tableau to conclude his Wars of the Roses cycle in 1988. It would be effective here if it weren’t derivative.
Hytner’s optical allusions to the current economic crisis are quixotic, since Timon of Athens is not about recession, class struggle or even income inequality. (Timon’s financial problems vanish when he discovers the gold. The point is that this doesn’t matter). The play as written does not allow these themes to be explored or even discussed, and importing a few lines from Coriolanus about the hungry plebeians doesn’t help. Without a textual basis, the production’s relevance must rest upon a visual overlay, a free-floating veneer implying that Something Is Being Said about our current situation when nothing of the kind is being said at all.
Hytner is not even faithful to the play’s worldview, at least where Women are concerned. Thus, Phrynia and Timandra are no longer prostitutes, but card-carrying members of the rebellious underclass. The female masquers at the opening banquet perform an angular and sexless dance piece instead of the erotic entertainment that the text requires. Timon’s faithful steward Flavius is feminized into Flavia, as if only a woman could be so decent. These spasms of political correctness are not allayed by sprinkling a few women among Timon’s false friends, and they have the opposite of their intended effect. By pandering to a modern audience, by lacking the full courage of the play’s convictions, they are flatly offensive.
A great leading actor would be some consolation, but Timon is played by Simon Russell Beale. Beale’s acting has long been marked by a self-protective contempt for other people, and Timon allows him to indulge his deepest instincts. He is less than sociable even in the early scenes, shrinking from kisses and wiping his palms after handshakes. His charmlessness confirms that his friends attends on him only for his money: there is certainly nothing else to like. When Timon devolves into a savage hobo, Beale is finally in his element, able to avoid all human contact that does not reek of defensive scorn. In possible contempt of the audience, he delivers his speeches in distracted, off-hand accents. This robs the more resonant lines of their power, and is probably incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with the text. But perhaps a tangential approach to meaning is appropriate for a character who declares that “All’s obloquy.” Moreover, by subordinating sense to stage business, Beale does impart the illusion of variety to Timon’s repetitive rants. In fact, given his peculiar harmony with the role, and despite his rhetorical mediocrity and emotional constipation, this is the most adequate work that I have seen Beale do. He is a tolerable actor for a second-rate Shakespeare play.
The supporting actors portray Timon’s friends cartoonishly, without subtlety or taste. As Flavia, Deborah Findlay is less a moral exemplar than a querulous biddy. I last saw Hilton McRae as a curly-headed Orlando to Juliet Stevenson’s Rosalind (1985). Since then, he has acquired a seamed face, straight hair and a surprising amount of gravitas. Bleakly nihilistic yet humane, neither playing for laughs nor avoiding them, he is a more than respectable Apemantus.