Pros: Strong performances, with much attention paid to all aspects of the show.
Cons: This production doesn’t fully overcome the difficulties inherent in a play notoriously tricky to perform.
Thank goodness it’s summertime! If ever there was a fable not to see at the start of the year when many of us are in the aftermath of the Yuletide excess, and hobbling towards that long and distant end of January paycheck, it is this one. Timon is a big spender who squanders his wealth on his friends, only to have them betray him when he needs bailing out. His resulting alienation and contempt for humanity makes Timon a tragically culpable figure, reminiscent of the more widely known King Lear.
A first production for Lock & Key Theatre, Timon of Athens sees Director Alice Langely swapping ancient Athens for present-day London, an idea inspired in part by the proximity of The Space to the major business district of Canary Wharf. Although it is one of Shakespeare’s least performed texts, since the recent financial crisis Timon of Athens has gained some traction. This is due in part to its capacity to offer a critique of the corruption, and flagrant mismanagement of money that continues to dominate our news headlines.
Timon – played by Alex Venditelli – is portrayed as a wealthy playboy who has inherited a fortune from his late father’s business empire. We first catch sight of him on stage drinking champagne and looking dapper in a tuxedo and bow tie, surrounded by a gaggle of flatterers who are generously rewarded for their sycophantic praise. With swift and effective lighting and scene changes, there’s a real effort to create a complete and intense experience in a very intimate theatre space. This immersive set experience was felt most particularly in the nightclub scenes, which were full of music and strobe lighting effects. The second half also brought about a drastic set change, as the stage was transformed into one impressive heap of rubbish-filled black bags – an apt setting for Timon’s biliously misanthropic monologues.
The cast of nine moves in and out of multiple roles, faithfully conveying the sham and falsity of the hedonistic world Timon inhabits. Their strong and varied performances are sustained throughout, and for a play with next to no female characters the cast and crew did well to create meaningful roles for women. I particularly enjoyed Rosie Marsh as the honest and loyally undemanding steward to Timon, dressed as a contemporary Executive Assistant, whose devotion to her leader comes as close as you’ll get to a familial or romantic relationship in a play otherwise devoid of affection. The adoption of the Commedia dell’arte form using masks for the roles of Poet and Artist provided a much-needed levity to the pervading and ever-growing cynicism of the characters.
Timon of Athens is an uneven play, and notoriously difficult to perform because balancing both the audience’s criticisms and sympathies for Timon can be easily blunted. It is not for nothing that Coleridge described Timon as ‘the stillborn twin of Lear’! There were some points in this show where the richness of the language and complexity of the moral predicament faced by Timon struggled to come through. A greater focus on sharpening the political context might have made Timon a character easier to relate to – not simply a generic spoilt spendthrift or sacrificial lamb, but something in between.
Overall, the skilled performances and substantial adaptations from this talented new company make this show worth a visit. The upstairs bar and restaurant, and the lively downstairs patio benches of The Space are also a great environment in which to spend your summer evenings.