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A CurtainUp Review
Timon of Athens
Men shut their doors against a setting sun. -Apemantus in Act 1 Scene ii
Gregory Doran is a most witty director. His latest offering for the RSC is the rare and sometimes thought to be unfinished or co-written, Timon of Athens. Under Doran's direction this play becomes a illuminating introduction to Shakespeare. At two and a half hours, Timon is a digestible length for the young and its theme of greed, avarice and "fair weather" friends is one which will never date. This season the RSC gives us not only what we expect, beautifully spoken verse, but also a visually innovative play. Add Duke Ellington's music played live and you have a feast for the eyes and ears.
The story is of Timon (Michael Pennington), a rich Athenian whose generosity exceeds his money supply and who, when finding himself upon his uppers, can extract no assistance from those to whom he had formerly distributed his largesse. Only Apemantus (Richard McCabe) tells Timon that his friends are insincere and self serving. Timon hosts a banquet with Alcibiades, a young general, (Rupert Penry-Jones) as his guest. After discovering the inadequacy of those who were indebted to him, Timon gives one last banquet, to his former friends, where he serves hot water and stones under silver salvers. Uncover dogs and lap! After a dispute over the punishment for one of his soldiers, Alcibiades is banished from Athens. Timon, in poverty, disillusioned with all mankind or misanthropic, leaves Athens to live as a hermit. Whilst he is digging for roots to eat he discovers gold which he gives to Alcibiades to pay for an army to fight against Athens. The parallels with Lear are apparent.
Michael Pennington takes this large role in his able stride, from genial host to breast beating, angry recluse. McCabe is sourly pessimistic about human nature, dressed in plain black when surrounded by colour and sumptousness. Funny isn't it how predicting the worst gains you no friends! John Woodvine plays Flavius, Timon's loyal steward, whose warning about Timon's spending goes unheeded. There are good cameos from Peter Kelly as the most unpleasant of erstwhile friends, first fawning then fickle, from Sam Dastor as the poet with big hair, but the discovery of the year must be Rupert Penry-Jones who has youth and looks on his side as the play's true hero. I hope he will play Hamlet soon.
This Timon of Athens sparkles with imaginative design and deft direction. I particularly liked Stephen Brimson Lewis' design. The play opens in stylish monochrome, a huge black door to Timon's house, outside which the bustle of salesmen, an artist, a jeweller, a poet line up for business. The costume is Tudor/Stuart from the waist up with trousers and high heels rather than hose and it works well. Inside Timon's house the walls are hung with swathes of glittering, expensive fabric, the lighting green and violet for the banquet. The poet flies down as Cupid with enormous angel wings, ready to fire his arrows, in a chin dropping spectacle. The masque at the banquet, four men dressed as Amazonian (female) soldiers with off the shoulder breast plates, dance provocatively. Streamers explode into the air and the lighting turns red for this scene of supposed depravity. What a party! In the Turkish baths the director again titillates with all those oiled bodies and thongs in a witty scene of masseurs and clients. The creditors assemble like carrion crow in black cloaks. The soldier Alcibiades had asked to be pardoned, hangs from a creaking gibbet. In the second act a black backdrop is painted with a huge sun with a black hole in its centre but with flecks of dust, like a pale hairy doughnut. A lone clarinet plays to the sounds of the sea shore in Timon's hideaway, in this bleak contrast with Athenian extravagance. The final scenes of the Alcibiades led invasion of Athens take place in smoke as the general stands on a bridge surveying the chaos of those fleeing.
Even in the scheduleof the Royal Shakespeare Company, this production is a rare event. It's too bad theater goers have such a short time to catch it.