Monday, November 12, 2012

Shakespeare by the Brits: Timon of Athens and Hamlet

Simon Russell Beale as Timon in Timon of Athens (Photo: Johan Persson)

Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare‘s most intriguing tragedies; he never wrote anything else quite like it. (Scholars believe that he may have collaborated with Thomas Middleton, the co-writer of The Changeling.) In the first half, the title character extends himself without limit to his friends, staging extravagant banquets, showering them with expensive gifts, bailing out one young man when he runs afoul of the law. But when his generosity bankrupts him and he’s forced to call on the same friends for loans, they make up excuses. At this juncture Timon’s kindness turns to acid; he invites them to one last feast to mock them and erupt in fury at their betrayal, then leaves Athens to live in a cave. Up to this point the play seems to share a dramatic trajectory with Coriolanus – in both the protagonists are provoked into turning their backs on their cities – but in the second half Timon is truly unorthodox. The action all but stops dead. Timon discovers gold in his cave, but it’s ceased to have any meaning for him (he observes sardonically that he can’t eat it). He’s visited by a series of men – his devoted steward Flavius (who’d tried unsuccessfully to warn him that he was blowing through his funds), Athenians on various self-interested missions, but most memorably the cynical philosopher Apemantus, an unwilling guest at Timon’s parties whose truth-telling now provides a kind of humanity for him in his reduced – and newly conscious – state. Their long interchange, which is undeniably the highlight of the second half of the play, is either, depending on how a director chooses to interpret it, a Beckettian encounter in the wilderness or a means of exploring Timon’s psychic journey into darkness.

Simon Russell Beale and Hilton MacRae
The play seems almost impossible to pull off, yet I’ve seen it done successfully several times, and the latest Timon, directed by Nicholas Hytner (The Madness of King George, The History Boys) for the National Theatre and shown in movie theatres last week in the NT Live on HD series, marks one of those times. Hytner and his designer, Tim Hatley, set the tragedy in the contemporary world, where angry mobs rail against the profligate rich and Timon’s social set are indulgent financiers. Hytner doesn’t do very much with this idea, so whenever he stages scenes intended to reflect the fiscal realities of the post-2008 world or the Occupy movement (for example, when the guests fleeing Timon’s last feast are beaten by men in hoodies and ski masks wielding clubs, or when Ciáran McMenanin’s Alcibiades, depicted here as the leader of the rebels, is co-opted by Athens at the end of the play), they feel grafted onto the production. But as a background for Timon’s story the setting is most effective. Hytner’s version is mostly a psychological portrait of Timon, and as played by master actor Simon Russell Beale in a tour de force performance, the character is fascinating. In a twenty-first-century rendition of his story, Timon’s excessive generosity comes across as less naïve than neurotic, a desperate need to be loved: all those banquets, all those jewels heaped upon men (and women, of course, in this modern edition) whose only proof of friendship appears to be that they show up to be feted. Beale plays him as outwardly warm but physically remote (he flinches when one of his guests proffers a kiss on the cheek); he seems to prefer hostly expansiveness among large groups to intimacy. (Except for Flavia, his steward – feelingly played by Deborah Findlay – he’s never alone with anyone in the first half of the play.) In some way, then, the ranting, misanthropic Timon of the second half, after he discovers how radically he’s misjudged his companions, is convincingly the other side of the coin. Maddened by his experience with his fellow Athenians, he gives way to the sort of anger that often undergirds desperation.

Hilton MacRae plays Apemantus with more gentleness and understatement than anyone else I’ve seen in this role, which isn’t to say that he softens the philosopher’s uncompromising toughness. Tonally it’s a smart option, since Beale’s tirades are so powerful. Their scene together in Timon’s cave – in this production he lives like a homeless man on the outskirts of the city – is a moving exchange between two souls whose shared bitter vision of the world enables them to come together, though the style of their communication is mockery and insult. Among the excellent supporting cast Tom Robertson is a stand-out as Ventidius (the young man Timon goes bail for), here rendered as an entitled brat with a coke habit, a prime example of a “Sloane ranger.” NT Live captured the closing night performance at the Olivier, which was greeted with cheers – now pro forma in American houses, but still a sign of distinction in the English theatre.

Michael Benz as Hamlet, directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst (Photo: Fiona Moorhead)

It’s hard to mount a good production of King Lear, but it seems to be almost impossible to make Hamlet work on stage – a fact that has always puzzled me. I’ve seen some great Lears but though I can think of several worthy cinematic Hamlets, I’ve never seen the play come together in the theatre. The traveling production from Shakespeare’s Globe in London, directed by Dominic Dromgoole and Bill Buckhurst with a cast of ten actors and musicians, is the latest disappointment. The pared-down staging, which draws repeatedly from a limited repertory of props and small set pieces, is sometimes clever, e.g., the use of a pair of boards to line the walk the Ghost (Dickon Tyrell) leads Hamlet (Michael Benz) through toward the cliff where they have their first private moment. I liked the idea of Ophelia (Carlyss Peer) appearing on a ladder above the upper level of the set to reprise her melancholy ballad, “He is dead and gone, lady,” while her shrouded body is being laid in the ground below. But these staging tricks are the only ideas in the show, which is a hodge-podge of styles and periods and doesn’t seem to mean anything. Christopher Saul’s Polonius, doddering and pompous, could have stepped out of any trite Victorian version of the play, while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Peter Bray and Matthew Romain) show up at Elsinore with tennis rackets and silly caps, like Oxbridge undergraduates from the 1950s, and Claudius (Tyrell) calls them “Rosenblitz and Guggenheim.” The play within the play is loaded with ludicrous mugging, especially from Miranda Foster as the Player Queen. (She isn’t much better as Gertrude.) Benz is best in the soliloquies; they have focus and shape. Otherwise all you get from this Hamlet is that he certainly seems young (he comes across as about eighteen). The production gets a little better in the second half – the last scene isn’t bad – but it adds precisely nothing to our understanding of Hamlet.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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