Home » Reviews » Timon of Athens, National Theatre

Timon of Athens, National Theatre

William Shakespeare
Directed by Nicholas Hytner
★★★★

Pros: Simon Russell-Beale’s superb performance in a superbly adapted play.

Cons: Hardly any, slightly dragged towards the end of the second half.

Our Verdict: Top-notch stuff from the National, and definitely worth seeing despite the fact that you may never have heard of it!

Courtesy of Time 

These days, I don’t look at the descriptions for the National’s shows before I book my tickets; I just assume that they are all going to be worth seeing. Consequently, I often turn up on the Southbank with no idea what I’m about to watch. Timon of Athens was a classic example. I assumed that it was (another) Greek play, and I was therefore rather surprised to find out that it is a Shakespeare. Being honest, this triggered a bit of a panic attack. Surely there must be a reason that it’s rarely performed and that I’ve never heard of it?! As it turns out my worries were misguided; the National’s newest production is tremendously engaging, easy to follow and extremely well-performed.

As always, I’m not going to waste time on telling you the plot. What I will say is that it is a tragedy, and that it is a very powerful story about a man whose fatal weakness is extraordinary generosity. The National have also increased the natural power in the story by shortening it, amending the text in places and modernising the setting. Instead of classical Athens, the action takes place in London, with backdrops of Canary Wharf visible through the windows of the Tim Hatley’s excellent (but not overbearing) set. In a play where key themes include greed and taking advantage of the ‘nice guy’, the image of London’s finest financial institutions in the background made for a potent comparison. Togas have been swapped for suits, and the cave where Timon ends up living in the second act of the original play has been substituted for a dock or a modern industrial wasteland of some form. These modern settings create vivid and recognisable images which brilliantly frame the play itself, increasing its emotional impact dramatically.

Under the experienced directorial control of Nicholas Hytner, the actors themselves bring the play to live fantastically well. Nicholas Sampson’s rendition of the poet was particularly impressive. Fake and slimy on the outside, and deeply selfish on the inside, his motivations were crystal clear and sickening in places, especially given the warmth that the audience felt towards Timon himself. Another strong performance came from Tom Robertson, whose ‘gap-yap’ style portrayal of posh-boy Ventidius provided one of the more light-hearted performances in the evening. And finally, although it took me a while to warm up to her, Deborah Findlay’s rendition of Flavia, Timon’s loyal servant and only true friend, was deeply touching, especially in the second act.

The remainder of this review is dedicated to Simon Russell-Beale’s outstanding performance as Timon himself. Russell-Beale is already a firm favourite of mine, but this performance really was something else, and I found myself almost moved to tears (not tears, men don’t cry, I mean ‘manly watery eye’) in places, especially when the rather unimposing character is reduced to foraging through rubbish for food and then physically beaten by those trying to get their hands on his gold. His speech towards the end of the first half was brilliant as well, with his eyes suddenly darting all over the place in manic anger. I can’t find enough superlatives to describe it; this was one of the great male performances, and it was the principle driving force behind this truly engaging evening.

Negatives? At 2 hours 30 minutes it isn’t too long, but towards the end of the second half I did feel it start to drag a touch, with some of the immense power and energy it had built up starting to slip away a bit. Other than that however, I didn’t see many faults – it was an excellent evening of theatre, and I highly recommend it, even to those who sometimes have trouble with the work of the Bard.

Please feel free to leave your thoughts and comments in the section below!

Timon of Athens runs at the National Theatre until 31st October 2012. 
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 or book online at http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/69913/productions/timon-of-athens.html

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Everything Theatre
Founded in 2011, Everything Theatre started life as a pokey blog run by two theatre enthusiasts and – thanks to the Entry Pass Scheme for 16-25 year olds – regular National Theatre goers. Today, we are run by part-time volunteers from a wide array of backgrounds. Among our various contributors are people who work in theatre, but also people who work in law, medicine, events, marketing and even psychiatry! We are all united by our love for the London theatre scene.
  • “Timon” is only partly by Shakespeare – some (although people disagree how much) was written by his younger contemporary Thomas Middleton. This, I think, is why it is very much a play of two halves; because it was a committee job, and an unfinished committee job at that. There is a note in the NT programme that the text was unfinished when it was published in the First Folio, was probably never performed by Shakespeare’s company and was probably a forgotten bit of writing that was grabbed up by his publishers and shoved into the First Folio when the rights for Troilus and Cressida didnt come through in time for the printing.