Timon of Athens, National Theatre, NT Olivier, August 2012

Timon is a tragic figure who fails utterly to understand himself, and therefore cannot come close to understanding others. His vast wealth is from lands he owns and mortgages, and he spends it eagerly on his acquaintances along with others come to him for help. When there is no more left he abandons the city, and then chances upon hidden treasure that he also gives away. From loving the people around him, whom he mistakenly regards as friends, he learns to hate everyone, and Simon Russell Beale gives a riveting portrait of this absurd person.

Timon entertains, all images NT/ Johan Persson

The production by Nicholas Hytner sets Shakespeare’s play in a modern city with high-rise banks visible through a huge window. We see the Timon Room in an Art Gallery paid for by his largesse, but the counterpoint to his lavish generosity is embodied in the cynic philosopher Apemantus, well portrayed by Hilton McRae. He criticises everyone and everything, as when he tackles the poet who has received generous payment from Timon and considers him a worthy fellow, “Yes, he is worthy of thee, and to pay thee for thy labour: he that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ the flatterer”.

Timon and Apemantus

They all flatter Timon, but when he finds himself in financial difficulties no-one will help. There is a sub-plot with a man named Alcibiades, warm-hearted and impulsive, who would have helped Timon, but is in exile. He raises a small force, takes the city and comes to terms with its leaders, but by the time Timon could be welcomed back the now-wretched man is dead. Alcibiades never quite comes over as sincere in this production, unlike Timon himself, but that is the magic of Simon Russell Beale.

Timon and the treasure

Magic too appears in Bruno Poet’s lighting and the striking dichotomy of the flourishing city and the arid concrete exterior, expressed in Tim Hatley’s designs. This play nearly vanished completely from the record, and is rarely performed, so go to see it but do not expect too much. It is hardly King Lear.

Performances continue until November 1 — for details click here.

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