Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Timon of Athens

My mother has been taking me to see Shakespeare plays for as long as I can remember, possibly since I was aged about 5. While one of my friends who did a Chemistry degree mused that this possibly constituted a form of child abuse, I've never minded and it's been an ambition of mine for a while now to see all of his plays performed in the course of my lifetime.

I'm certainly not doing too badly and to this end, when my parents asked what I'd rather do to celebrate my mother's birthday this year, I voted for going to see Timon of Athens at the Globe Theatre.

It is one of Shakespeare's least-known and least-performed plays. The programme notes for the Globe performance assume he co-wrote it with contemporary Thomas Middleton. The production is bold and innovative and makes full use of the Globe as a 3D performance space where actors are much more freely able to inter-act with the audience. I have noticed and loved this quality of performances at the Globe before and director Lucy Bailey makes full use of it.

The over-arching themes of the play are money and greed. The central character, Timon, is generous to a fault and is preyed upon by flatterers who are his friends only for as long as his money lasts. When he turns to them in need, they all refuse him. Cursing all mankind, Timon leaves Athens to live in the wilderness and eventually dies an outcast.

Bailey portrays these themes in an intensely visceral way. A net is suspended over the audience in which members of the cast, vulture-like, scrabble and scratch. At times they drop through holes suspended on bungee ropes to hover threateningly over the theatre-goers. Even when not acting as vultures, the costumes actors wear are distinctly straggly and birdlike in their appearance with wings and crests and tails.

When Timon is dying, he places two coins over his eyes and lies down. The first vulture to approach him tentatively removes the coins and then, gradually, they all descend on him and he is physically devoured by the entire cast. As I was sitting in a balcony, I had a particularly good view of this and it was a truly terrifying moment, particularly as once the body is gone, the remaining actors faces are streaked with blood.

The image of this play as unpopular and not recognised as one of Shakespeare's great works is a shame, and I think, undeserved. Whatever the reasons for it, this is an incredibly successful and enjoyable production and even if you only go as a groundling and pay a fiver for a standing ticket, I would urge anyone in London to get themselves to a performance pronto.

(Incidentally, the Shakespeare plays I have seen are as follows: A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline, Pericles, Henry VII, Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet, Macbeth, Timon of Athens, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III, The Tempest, Henry IV part I, Henry IV part II, A Comedy of Errors, The Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and the Merchant of Venice. Only another 12 to go.

The scary thing is that the list almost equals one Shakespeare play for every year of my life and I've seen several of those plays several times (most viewed are I think Hamlet, Macbeth, Midsummer Night's Dream, Cymbeline, the Winter's Tale and the Tempest). Also, I go to many theatrical and performing arts things beyond Shakespeare, which indicates that I must go on average between 5 and 6 times a year...

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