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Timon of Athens

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare's Globe
(2008)

Production photo

Money is not the root of all evil, but the love of it is - or, so the saying goes. In the satirical Timon of Athens, which could be read as Jacobean-Court allegory, Shakespeare explores materiality and morality through a protagonist whose fatal flaw lies in his misreading of true friendship.

Wealthy Timon indulges 'friends' with gifts ad nauseum until loyal Flavius - a true friend, but socially inferior - points out that the coffers are dry; expected reciprocal help from the indulged does not materialise and, after a revenge-filled anti-banquet, Timon flees society and heads for the woods, hating all. A sub-plot concerns a soldier's defence of an underling, death, and banishment.

This is the fourth production in the Globe's Totus Mundus season, reading the world as playhouse, and director Lucy Bailey deploys an inspired, overarching avian theme (augmented by Django Bates's pertinent music and Maxine Doyle's acrobatic choreography) where interchanging actors - perched above the yard on springy mesh - cluck, chirrup and agitate like vultures smelling blood, sitting well with the seventeenth-century interest in man as animal-type (Jonson's Volpone and others).

Three hours places heavy demand on an audience but endurance pays, especially for groundlings, under constant threat of being 'pecked' from above and used as 'extras' (showered with coins, splashed with water) by an exemplary Globe cast, many of whom feature in current productions (Michael Jibson, 'the painter', is a plucky Northern Puck in Dream).

Simon Paisley Day's Timon is particularly strong in part two as his near-naked angular frame hungrily ravishes the earth for edible roots, metaphorically echoing the blood roots he lacks - a desperation encapsulated in momentarily allowing Flavius (Patrick Godfrey) to bathe his troubled face like a tender mother. Tousle-haired Bo Poraj, as cynical philosopher Apemantus (Timon's foil), snarls, bites and spits his truisms with a commanding stage presence that transforms a dry, textual character.

A flash of male nudity, mild simulated sex, and bawdiness anticipate a funny/shocking moment (depending on one's viewpoint) that defines the term 'scatological' and proves the power of dramatic suggestion as audience, en masse, cowers in happy-horror.

The play is cerebral, wordy and demands a second visit; Thomas Middleton's now accepted collaboration brings a touch of London city comedy to some of the dialogue. It is a masculine evening as, with the exception of Angelic musicians, female roles are reserved for prostitutes as ciphers of male lust.

That 'tragedy' is omitted from the title may reinforce Timon's failure to recognise that his own idea of friendship is flawed (why have friends if we can't use them?) and his decision to 'love naught' leaves an unenlightened tragic hero.

Contemporary writers were concerned with the family in all its mutations: we are not told why Timon lacks wife, progeny, lover, but perhaps the danger of insularity is the play's true tenor. Shakespeare is always modern for us: as the family unit is threatened, society breaks down, and singletons rely ever more on friends, the question of who to trust when our 'roots' need water is cogent.

Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler