William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton (?), Timon of Athens. Presented at the Globe Theatre, London, England. 30 August 2008.

Kevin De Ornellas
University of Ulster

Kevin De Ornellas. "Review of William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton (?), Timon of Athens. Presented at the Globe Theatre, London, England. 30 August 2008." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.1 (2009-10) <URL:http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-1/orntimon.htm>. 

Directed by Lucy Bailey. Designed by William Dudley. Music composed by Django Bates. Choreographed by Maxine Doyle. Text work by Giles Block. Costume supervision by Hillary Lewis. Aerial work by Aircraft Circus. 

With Michael Matus (Poet, Caphis and Bandit), Michael Jibson (Painter and Creditor’s Servant), Christopher Brandon (Merchant and Servillius, Timon’s Servant), Peter Bankolé (Jeweller and Flaminius, Timon’s Servant), Simon Paisley Day (Timon), Sam Parks (Messenger and Bandit), Robert Goodale (Old Athenian, First Senator and Creditor’s Servant), Jonathan Bond (Lucilius, a Servant and Lucius), Bo Poraj (Apemantus), Patrick Godfrey (Flavius, Timon’s Steward), Gary Oliver (Alcibiades), Vinicius Salles (Alcibiades’ Friend, Creditor’s Servant and Bandit), Adam Burton (Lucullus and Bandit), Sam Parks (Sempronius), Oliver Boot (Ventidius and Bandit), Richard Clews, (Second Senator Creditor’s Servant), Frank Scantori (Third Senator), Fernanda Prata (Cupid), Pippa Nixon (Phrynia), Laura Rogers (Timandra), Bethan Walker (Amazon) and Siân Williams (Amazon).

  1. The Globe has given Shakespeareans many great nights since the late 1990s, but it can be a frustrating place to watch plays. The performances are often marred by what I consider to be three unfortunate tendencies. First, there is often a profusion of intellectually pointless if superficially impressive acrobatic stunts. Second, the musicians can be excessively intrusive, and sometimes manifest a disposition of thrilled self-regard. Third, there tends to be a profusion of childish jokes about farting. Sometimes, productions can combine these faults to produce a compendium of annoyance for serious theatregoers. For example, the intrusive musicians during 2008’s awful Love’s Labour’s Lost made fart noises with their brass instruments, to the pleasure really only of themselves.

  2. These three faults were also present in this Timon of Athens. The production, appearing at a time when Britain was waking up to the sheer scale of its economic crisis – an economic crisis that saw many stock market gamblers lose money on Timon-like scales - should have been bare, raw and serious. But the three questionable tendencies were here. The pointless acrobatic stunts came in the shape of a huge net that covered the open space like a sort of malign, black web. Black-clad men and women crawled over the netting, occasionally swooping down through the netting to scavenge some of Timon’s food. The main problem with this distraction (I use that word carefully) was that it was unclear whether or not these human figures were supposed to represent crows or vultures. The bird-aware Shakespeare was never careless about the naming of particular bird species, so there is no need for theatre directors to be vague about bird species either – especially when a crow or a vulture may mean such different things to an audience. For a Londoner, a crow is an over-familiar, quotidian beast; for that same Londoner, a vulture is a vicious, exotic thing. So, is Timon exploited by over-familiar locals or by exotic visitors?

  3. The intrusive music was present, of course. According to Django Bates’ programme notes, the music was contrived to produce ‘developed reflections of previously beautiful music’ – what was actually produced was tuneless, irritating, over-loud and irrelevant.

  4. Instead of farting, however, we got scatology. Out in the wilderness, Timon defecated gleefully. Such an exposure to humanity’s basest function may have provoked pitiful reflections on our conjunction with the animal kingdom or on the nakedness of fallen man in a recession. Instead it was all played for laughs. Timon dropped a root vegetable into the excrement and ‘amused’ the audience by encouraging the Poet and Painter to pick out the vegetable and eat it. I know that audiences in Shakespeare’s day were supposed to be rowdier than they are today, but, really, I can’t see any justification for turning the Globe into a pit of sub-Jackass grossness.

  5. This production was frustrating in many other ways too. There was, for instance, no attempt to grapple with the vexed issue of Timon’s sexuality. Simon Paisley Day’s Timon showed no sexual interest in the female dancers/prostitutes, but he showed no homoerotic sentiment either. I thought that the almost-naked display of the then-imprisoned Ventidius might have stimulated a homoerotic frisson – but it didn’t. The audience was left baffled as to why the emotionally aloof Timon reacted with such vituperation to the pitiful state of this caged Athenian. Generally, this Timon was too aloof in the early stages of the play but too joyous in the latter stages – it was hard for an audience to know why he was so generous. That is fine – we are supposed to be incredulous at the scale of Timon’s excessive generosity. But I think that the audience wants to see Timon gain some vicarious pleasure from his expensively bought parties. And I’m not sure that Timon should enjoy his time in the wilderness so much – whether or not he gets to enjoy the thrill of public defecation.

  6. The actors playing the other two main characters worked hard – but they were both rather drowned in the aurally and visually cluttered arena. Gary Oliver was a big, bearded, loud Alcibiades – a sort of poor man’s Brian Blessed. He too affected a very unconvincing personality change during the play. He started off as a good-time boy, an epicurean roister doister, annoying the (jealous?) audience by accepting fellatio from one of the ‘dancers’ who performed for Timon’s guests. The subsequent moment when the woman wiped her lips with great self-congratulation was dramatically daring - if incompatible with the audience’s consumption of the Globe’s over-priced but tasty carrot and coriander soup. Soon, though, Alcibiades was bitter, grim and sullen. Simply, the change came too quickly and too inexplicably. Bo Poraj looked brilliant as Apemantus. Dressed in black and festooned with a spiky haircut that complemented the barbed spikiness of his antisocial rhetoric, he appeared the epitome of a brooding, withdrawing, Bosola-like malcontent. But, sadly, his words were too often lost amidst the din of grating music and other distracting stage shenanigans.

  7. The production wasn’t entirely unsuccessful. The best moments came when the possibilities of the Globe space were harnessed to involve the audience in the absurd place that is the deluded mind of Timon. The first time we saw Timon was when he entered the theatre through a side door. Surrounded by lickspittles who cleared the groundlings out of the way, Timon’s entrance was alarmingly king-like. This ersatz regality was made even clearer when the audience scrambled for (chocolate) gold coins that flew from Timon’s hand as easily as the excrement would flow from his body later on. Then, we got to see Timon’s reaction to the portrait presented to him by the venal Painter: the audience laughed with a genuine heartiness as the portrait of a muscled hunk was presented to the credulous, spindly, weakling Timon. This was an efficacious example of an audience being treated to a theatrical revelation about Timon’s self-delusions, one not available explicitly in Shakespeare’s text.

  8. The audience was also made to feel involved in Timon’s ferocious mock-banquet. Timon stood in the middle of the stage, staring at his expectant guests who were seated on the edge of the stage with their backs to the audience. So, the dinner guests were facing Timon in the same way that the audience was. Because this staging exploited the audience’s subjective, point-of-view position in front of Timon, the audience members felt like his guests. When Timon threw water in the faces of his dinner guests it seemed like he was throwing water in the faces of the audience. We had arrived to gaze at this freakish benefactor of Athens – now he was gazing back and augmenting his gaze with disdain and violence. It is the sort of complacency-shattering confrontation that theatregoers do not see often enough on today’s Shakespearean stage. However, these moments of theatrical virtuosity were ephemeral. Despite the fleeting felicities and despite (or because of) its myriad aural and visual distractions, this Timon was a curiously bland entertainment. The performance ended with a large-scale dance (or jig?) that was neither cathartically enjoyable nor emotionally moving. Globe productions often end with supposedly authentic jigs, but, sadly, this purpose-dodging dance seemed to encapsulate this frills-marred production as a whole: vaguely diverting visually, but intellectually pointless and theatrically unwholesome.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2010-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).