Wednesday 18 July 2012

Timon of Athens at the National

The best thing about this performance is that it has one of those moments about which I have written before, where everything else falls away and there's just you and these characters now. It comes probably about half way through the second half. Simon Russell Beale's Timon and Hilton McRae's Apemantus have been building up a nice head of steam in the trading of insults to show how they detest one another. “Rogue”, Beale roars, then each time more falteringly, “rogue...rogue.”  For a few brief moments the bond of love between them is almost bared. It gives to McRae's parting appeal to Timon – the blunt command to live – an added emotional weight.

Around this moment, there is a considerable cast grappling with a somewhat unwieldy play. The republic of Athens is crumbling. Lords led by Timon deal in lavish gifts and banquets while outside a revolt brews. It's not surprising that Nicholas Hytner has chosen to update it to reflect the Occupy movement and the current financial crisis, and this does yield some effective insights. But the thing about this play is, as the moment between Beale and McRae reveals, that it's really about the frailties of human beings, and most of all the troubled personality of Timon. It wasn't until late on in the second act as Beale's transformed homeless begger wrestles with the lure of fresh wealth that I began to think that really it is actually all about Timon – what is the driver in him that causes him to give and give and give in the flamboyant, ultimately crazed manner of the first half, and then to turn on mankind with such virulence after the interval. Beale nearly always delivers the language with point, is frequently compelling to watch (especially after his fall) but I think there's further for this characterisation to go. I'm also not altogether convinced that Hytner has quite got a full handle on the play. The updating, like Beale's performance has many striking moments but looking back at the first half having experienced the second I feel there needed to be more focus on Timon to begin with, a clearer attempt to tease out what is really going on. Beale's desire for release through death seems to suggest a sense of awareness of a kind of madness that the whole performance and the staging in which it's embedded could have followed through more fully.

Among the supporting company there are two standout performances. I've already mentioned Hilton McRae. It's true that Apemantus has a lot of the best lines but Hilton delivers them eloquently and poignantly – arguably eclipsing Beale when they're on stage together. More, when still and silent he radiates presence. Some of the other members of the cast could take a few pointers from their delivery. Of the rest the stand out is Tom Robertson's ghastly Ventidius, played as though emerged fresh from Eton and preparing to join the Tory party. As my neighbour at the interval commented he makes the language sound astonishingly modern. The other parts are generally well taken with the exception of Deborah Findlay's Flavia. I don't know whether it was being seated at the very front of the Olivier Stalls but for me she spoke too loudly all the time and delivered all her lines at the same level – this rather stood out against the more nuanced performances of others. Some of the younger performers could also do to tone down their big moments a bit – emotions are often more effective if not played full on (though again my being right at the front could have been a factor).

Overall, despite a few unevennesses, this is well worth catching.

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