Review by Ellen S. Jaffe
Is friendship only as deep as your pocket? What happens when you believe you are wealthy in friends as well as money – and then these friends desert you in your hour of need? Timon of Athens, at Stratford, raises these questions, important for our time as well as Shakespeare’s. Timon is one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays; some scholars even think that the play was not written entirely by Shakespeare but in collaboration with another writer, perhaps Thomas Middleton. It has, however, been revived in the 20th and now 21st centuries, often set in modern dress, as in this production. Photo by Cylla von Tydemann
(The first production at Stratford was in 1963, set in the 1920s and 30s, with a score by Duke Ellington.)
This production, directed by Stephen Ouimette gives the play both meaning and flair. The action is fast-paced but Ouimette lets us see the characters develop. Joseph Ziegler is magnificent as Timon, moving believably from genial, almost naïve, trust to satiric bitterness. (Ziegler, one of the founders of Soulpepper Theatre, is known for portraying Scrooge – a character whose arc is the opposite of Timon’s).
As played by Ziegler, Timon is a lonely man, both in the first part of the play, where he is the generous host surrounded with society and servants, and in the second part, when he forsakes the world altogether after the loss of fortune and friends. Timon’s tirades against mankind remind me a bit of Lear on the heath, but lack Lear’s tragic intensity, his struggles with love and age. (The plays were written around the same time). He appears to have no family – unlike almost all Shakespeare’s other major characters. No parents, children, siblings, or wife – even long-lost or troubling ones. This emotional isolation may be one cause of his blindness to his so-called friends’ greed & flattery, and why his transformation into a misanthrope is so complete. He does not recognize the people who truly care for him, like his steward Flavius, ably portrayed by Michael Spencer-Davis, and the philosopher Apemantus, played by Ben Carlson. Carlson creates a character who, in contrast to Timon, is cynical but not blind, capable of friendship and common sense.
We first meet Timon and his associates in a lavish banquet scene, where dinner jackets, cell phones, and fashionable tableware suggest today’s moneyed 1% and their sycophants. Apemantus shows his distance from the rest by casual dress, while two other characters, the Painter, Mike Nadajewski, and the Poet, Joshue Laboucane, wear “artistic” costumes. These two, although they want Timon to be their patron, are likeable, more genuine than the others. (They visit Timon later, in his self-imposed exile, but he chases them away, as he also does with Apemantus.) After the meal, exotic dancers in feathers and glitter come to entertain the men; Timon serves them the way he does food, but appears detached from their charms. The production also includes several women in typically-male roles of creditors and citizens of Athens, enhancing the modern feel.
Flavius has warned Timon that his generosity will drive him bankrupt, but he does not listen until too late. He believes the people he has supported will help him in return – but they all find excuses. Only his servants are loyal. Disillusioned, Timon stages a “mock-banquet,” then escapes to a desolate spot – still within reach of Athens – where he can extravagantly curse the world and then leave it. Here, he wears a ragged costume that could fit in any historical period. The set, too, changes from chic interior to rugged outdoors. I like the way Dana Osborne’s design brings out the spirit of the play, as does Kimberly Purtell’s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne’s sound design.
A sub-plot involves Timon’s friend, Alcibiades, based on a historical general and statesman. Tim Campbell plays him as a straightforward soldier; he is Athens’ champion, but is banished from the city when he defends one of his friends who is sentenced to death. In response, he threatens to destroy Athens completely – echoing Timon’s declared hatred for all men – but in the end, decides to moderate his anger, punish only a few guilty parties, and restore the city. (Our politicians could learn something from this attitude).
Timon of Athens continues in repertory at the Tom Patterson, Stratford, to Sept. 22nd.