It is likely that many people know more about The Lion King’s Timone than they do Shakespeare’s Timon, but, despite being one of the Bard’s lesser known and more complex plays, in the hands of the National Theatre’s Nicholas Hytner, Timon Of Athens is a modern and relatable production that makes you wonder why it is not a more regular sight on the London stage.
As the original title of Shakespeare’s play suggests, Timon Of Athens follows the life of Timon, a wealthy and respected lord whose dinner parties resemble royal feasts and whose generous gifts are as extravagant as the crown jewels. But when his lavish lifestyle spirals out of control, who will rescue him from a life of debt and ruin?
Not Paul Bentall’s lecherous Lucullus, certainly not Tom Robertson’s posh and pretentious Ventidius, nor indeed any of the money-grabbing parasites who Timon considered to be friends during his wealth. His caring and dependable steward Flavia, played with brimming passion by Deborah Findlay, is the only exception within Timon’s lonely world of unrequited friendship.
Simon Russell Beale has a difficult feat to fulfil as the man who goes from riches to rags. Indeed the Olivier Award-winning actor is barely recognisable on the opening of the second half, swapping his tailored suit and luxurious home for an altogether more shabby existence as he emerges from a wasteland dressed in varying shades of khaki with nothing but a shopping trolley and an empty bucket of KFC for company.
Russell Beale’s arresting performance merges emotions from both ends of the spectrum, as he transforms Timon’s generous kindness and eagerness to please into an overwhelming, at times frightening, hatred, much to the disgust of his unexpecting diners.
From elaborate dining room to skyscraper office, from festival campsite to art gallery, Tim Hatley’s revolving set metamorphoses as easily as Russell Beale portrays the transition from esteemed aristocrat to homeless tramp, while Bruno Poet’s lighting design traces Timon’s terrible fate, as his bright and bounteous life falls into the dark depths of despair.
Despite several centuries having passed since the play was written, Hytner’s production is eerily relevant, alluding to the financial crisis and the resulting violent and destructive riots, which have been seen to breed greed and dishonesty within the modern community.