Timon of Athens at the National Theatre
Nicholas Hytner boldly takes on the mammoth, under-done epic that is Timon of Athens on the Olivier Stage at The National. The choice to use the 1623 first folio edition (that isn’t believed to be the finished script for performance) is a respectable one and the Shakespearean language is, as always, beautiful. Nick Sampson as Timon’s friend “The Poet” glorifies modern rhythm with the 400-year-old text and makes it relatable yet still pleasingly poetic.
Set in London’s present day, amidst the economic crisis, the piece identifies the personal relationships that depend on wealth and only wealth. Timon lives extravagantly and hosts lavish dinners (presented on a moving platform that circles and intertwines with an impressive set) to show off to his friends, and has now found himself wound up in debt. When he realises this he asks his other rich friends for monetary help – they all turn and reject him. Simon Russell Beale charms effortlessly as Timon, and his staggering journey from man to mouse is epic. The end of Act One sees a juicy delivery of the crashing soliloquy that defines his personal downfall. Beale’s voice hits the far reaches of the auditorium and reverberates back with such clear diction and muscular power. His technique is enthralling.
Flavia, his steward, is played by Deborah Findlay who plays the character’s loyal nature with humbleness, but balances this again with similar powerful delivery to Beale. They pitch their relationship very naturally and with immense plausibility that brings credit back to the director who knows what he wants and clearly displays his vision to his audience. This is present in the ensemble’s vocalised reactions. They are exquisitely timed with the beats between dialogue, not interrupting the text’s iambic fluidity and are in no way over-bearing. This picking of detail just emphasises the beauty of the piece.
With a rare opportunity we got to step onto the set post-show, and the scenery’s scale is an awe-inducing spectacle. The detail in Tim Hatley’s design is just so, particularly in the grunge and dismal wasteland of Act Two with the litter and green muck strayed over blocks of concrete. You physically want to cringe when Timon starts eating old Chinese out of a box. The central focus is a large window that transforms as many backdrops including a stage, which entertains another expensive feature for one of Timon’s dinners by ballet dancers presenting a routine on pointe (cast from The Royal Ballet). The interpretive dance echoes the witches’ prophecy in Macbeth, which is a clever idea and pulled off appropriately. The script used also uses occasional sentences from other Shakespeare plays, which is excused for the play is celebrated as part of The World Shakespeare Festival and The London 2012 Festival.
It’s a must-see, a treat for the ears and thoroughly engaging. Another big tick for Hytner.
There’s also a magnificent free exhibition in the Olivier Hall of The Making of Timon of Athens and a very interesting pre- or post-show stroll. Make the time.
Timon of Athens is at the National Theatre until 1st November 2012. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.