The recent scholarship of Gary Taylor and John Lavagnino and the long-awaited arrival of the Oxford Middleton have given added incentive to London's Shakespeare's Globe to stage this First Folio rarity. Timon of Athens, a play long considered ‘unfinished' because of its uncomfortable situation in the Shakespeare canon, is now generally accepted to be a collaborative work between the established Shakespeare and the young up-and-coming Thomas Middleton. Although, like so many of Shakespeare's plays, no firm date of performance has been suggested, it is likely to have been played on the Globe stage in the opening years of King James's Scottish regime. Timon is a Jacobean play. Under Lucy Bailey's direction, this production highlights the ‘Jacobeanness' of its narrative, wallowing as it does in scatological humour and bloody gore.
The play is so rarely performed that it was refreshing to hear a city couple alongside me. With a certain arrogance, the young man answered his partner's query about the play with a succinctness that any Shakespeare scholar would envy: “Oh, darling, didn't you know?” It's a moral economic fable.” And guess what? He was right!
The Globe production really accentuates this morality theme. Timon, a wealthy Athenian lord, spends lavishly on his friends and servants alike. Freeloaders frequent his banqueting table and debtors, languishing in gaol, are freed on payment of Timon's bountiful bond. Sexual excess and gluttonous consumption are the order of the day. Timon appears addicted to the adulation that wealth can buy. His guests expect no less than the very best. They are seldom disappointed.
When, however, Timon falls on hard times, when he can no longer service his enormous debts incurred through years of unaccounted largesse, he sends to his Athenian friends for assistance. Of course, without his gold Timon is no longer of use to those who have relied on his beneficence. False friend, lackey, and indebted freed prisoner all shun his pleas for assistance and Timon is left destitute, railing against the Athenians he thought were friends and against society's reliance on wealth as a prerequisite of status and moral worth.
Distraught at his plight, Timon appears to go mad, escaping to the forest to reside in a shallow pit of filth and decay. No longer wealthy and loved, he is visited in turn by whores and soldiers, thieves and citizens, judiciary and faithful servants. In a twist of fate, the very spot Timon chooses to reside holds a buried horde of golden treasure, enough to restore his fortunes should he so desire. His mental anguish and his disgust with wealth allow him to recognize the folly of such a venture. Dirt and dust and faeces intermix with golden coins. Eventually, Timon literally buries himself in his filthy hole as crows and Athenians gather top pick at his bones and steal the gold he has unearthed. Moral fable indeed, and one which strikes a chord of discomfort in these troubled economic times of debt and downturn.
Simon Paisley Day is a superb Timon. Genuinely aristocratic in stature, and with a vocal range that gives full weight to the ranting attacks against his world and his fate, Paisley Day captures the tragic downfall of this figure to perfection. Wrapped around each of the Globe stage columns, the Goddess Fortune's dismal wheels epitomize the highs and lows of human existence. Paisley Day's Timon, trapped on one such Fortune's wheel, gains our sympathy as well as our respect.
Whether as a rich and spendthrift lord or as a dirty ranting madman, Timon is haunted by the presence of another malcontent, Apemantus. Bo Poraj plays this bitter figure, whose prescient humour foresees Timon's doom, with nonchalant aplomb. There is a real sense of counterpoint to these figures who appear to exchange places during the play. Timon's downfall would be so much easier to bear if he had the Stoic disregard for life's pleasures that Apemantus shows. The humble roots and water that Apemantus eats and drinks are all that Timon learns to crave. Eventually, the asceticism and acerbic wit of Apemantus seems to shine with golden enlightenment compared with the loss of self that Timon experiences. Roles reverse to underline the morality at the play's core.
The performances are, however, battling against their own nemesis in the guise of imposed theatrical convention. William Dudley's design seems strangely stilted. Too much of the action takes place upstage behind a long flat raised parapet which doubles as banqueting table and backdrop to Timon's squalid forest clearing. The reason is immediately obvious why this lowly visual dynamic is pushed so far to the rear. Bungee-jumping, all-flying Harpy-like human crows lurk on a vast safety net which is slung high above the groundlings. Several round entrance holes allow the figures to swoop down, barely missing the shrieking audience below. The symbolism is obvious and, when Timon's feast is first paraded through the audience, effective. From then on, the sound of carabineers clicking and safety harnesses creaking is distracting and annoying. The play becomes a battle between the soaring text and the directorial concept. Unfortunately, the concept invariably wins.
Despite the heavy-handedness of this dramatic imagery, we are still able to glimpse the magic of Timon's fall and the energy of his railing speeches. There is so much to commend this play, not least its rarity and the uncomfortable immediacy of its message. Moral economic fable indeed. Perhaps the governors of the Bank of England should heed its message. Let us hope we are all not doomed to the dust-pit of Timon's madness as Fortune's wheel spins into threatened global recession.
© Kevin Quarmby, 2008