Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 24 August, 1999

"What a dreadfully dull play," remarked the gent behind me to his companion on exiting the theatre. Whilst I would not go nearly as far as that, nevertheless an air of incompleteness hangs over Timon Of Athens: there is no record of its performance during Shakespeare's lifetime, and scholars speculate that it may be a draft or an incomplete collaborative work. The RSC has implicitly acknowledged its problematic nature, in that Gregory Doran's production is the company's first of the play since 1980.

Doran maintains a tone of campy exuberance through the first half, as we see first Timon's largesse to an endless flattering stream of Athenian dignitaries, artists and artificers, then their refusal to return his innumerable favours on discovering that his coffers have been emptied by his generosity. Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis cheerfully pillages four centuries of fashion fads, so that (for instance) one gorgeous lord sports spangled doublet, breeches, hose and a 1980s New Romantic quiff; in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre's gallery, a band plays Duke Ellington's score for the 1963 Stratford, Ontario production.

Michael Pennington (replacing the indisposed Alan Bates in the role) plays Timon throughout this phase as almost painfully sincere and trusting, without ever becoming outright ridiculous in his naivete. (I recall with shame my first schoolboy visit to this theatre nearly twenty years ago, in which I dozed through most of Pennington's performance as Hamlet.) John Woodvine turns in characteristically sterling work as his honest steward, Flavius. Richard McCabe is ideally suited to malcontent roles such as that of Timon's only plain-speaking friend Apemantus; McCabe has an unparalleled ability to be playful (muttering mockingly to the audience, "Ooh, it's Alcibiades!" on the Athenian general's first entrance) without compromising the bitterness and intensity of his character, a deceptively difficult balancing act in which he succeeded even as Prince Hamlet in Birmingham last year. Here, he recites his condemnation of Timon's opulent masque for his friends as a jazz poem, augmenting the band with some discreet ivory-tinkling of his own. After the interval, when visiting Timon in the wilderness by the sea to which he has exiled himself, McCabe spreads out a blanket, rubs suntan oil on himself and swaps antiphonal railings with Timon from a basking position a little odd given the huge (and hugely symbolic) stylised eclipse which has now appeared as a backdrop, but we get the idea.

After a slightly awkward explosion of sound and fury just before his exile, Pennington settles down into a consistent low but fierce bitterness for the second half, clad only in rags and a discreetly beshitten loincloth. The trouble is that by this point there is no real play as such, simply a succession of visitors of varying degrees of honesty, some prompted by genuine love, others by the rumour that Timon has, in a touch of divine cruelty, struck gold in his barren retreat, and all treated alike slung a few nuggets and seen off. The civic strand of the plot in which Alcibiades, exiled himself by the Athenian senate, gathers an army to march on the city never attains critical momentum, and Doran is left making the necessary change of tone without having sufficent dramatic structure on which to hang it comfortably.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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