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Timon of Athens – A Lesson in Friendship

August 22, 2012

Last night I went to see Nicholas Hytner’s production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens at London’s Royal National Theatre.

Timon is not one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays. Many Shakespeare scholars believe that it only partly his work, and that at least a third was written by his contemporary, Thomas Middleton. Whoever wrote it, Timon speaks to me, especially in the hands of Hytner and Simon Russell Beale, who played the trusting Athenian lord who lavishes gifts and hospitality upon friends who, when his wealth runs out, abandon him to poverty.

Hytner moves the setting from ancient Athens to modern London, mired in financial crisis. Timon’s guests are senators, sycophants and supplicants. Lurking in the background are the poor, the dispossessed and the protesters in hoodies, stirred up by the demagogue Alcibiades.

When Timon’s money runs out, he trusts his false friends to bail him out, and is rejected by each in turn. In a fury, he invites them to a last banquet, in which the feast turns out to a measure of his contempt (stones in the original; what appears to be dog shit in Hytner’s production).

After railing against them, he leaves Athens for a life of misanthropic poverty outside its walls. He discovers a cache of gold with which he funds Alcibiades’ assault on the old order in his native city. Alcibiades prevails, and imposes a new order on Athens. As the play ends, Alcibiades receives word that Timon has died, his epitaph cursing the world.

Hardly a bundle of laughs, yet no more so than King Lear and the Bard’s other tragedies.  The moral of the tale? Few of us have friends that can be relied upon in the worst of times as well as the best. And a rich man never knows who his true friends are until those friendships are tested in adversity.

All too true in the case of my father who, when I was in my teens, was struck by a financial calamity. Like Timon, he was a pillar of his community, sought out for his advice and his money. Overnight – save for a few compassionate souls who saw more in him than his money – his friends headed for the hills, in this case the smug uplands of the West Midlands business community.

Yet unlike Timon, he did not react by turning against the world. He was bigger than that, and as he was rebuilding his life, he made new friends who proved more enduring, perhaps because there was never a profit motive in those relationships. Yet throughout the rest of his life, he was hopelessly trusting, and often exploited by people who made use of his legal expertise under the guise of friendship – a situation that my mother, who tended to look at the dark side of human motivation, found endlessly vexing.

Was he the happier for his misplaced trust? I suspect so. After all, is it not better to give than to receive? Is it not wrong, as Timon believed before his disaster, to think of relationships in terms of balance sheets – favours given against favours received?

My father was no saint, but his example to me was to look at the world and the people in it without malevolence and bitterness. I too have tried to do that, but perhaps having lived through his experience I have tended to have less expectations of people. I am also much more careful to distinguish between personal and professional relationships. If you happen to be a workaholic – which I have tried not to be – you run the risk that if all your relationships are forged through work, when the work goes away, you can be left with an empty life.

Hytner’s treatment of Timon breathes life and relevance into an age-old morality tale. How does the failed banker, the rejected politician or the bankrupt businessman feel about friendship? How many of those who revelled in their influence and fed off their celebrity are with them now? Where are Asil Nadir’s friends? Fred Goodwin’s? Gordon Brown’s?

A good night, and a privilege to see Russell Beale – theatrical knight in waiting – in a magnificent display of stagecraft, as he descends from expansive bonhomie to hunched bitterness in the course of two magical hours.

And then there is perhaps the most potent curse ever written for the stage, uttered by Timon as he addresses the walls of Athens:

“Let me look back upon thee. O thou wall,

That girdlest in those wolves, dive in the earth,

And fence not Athens! Matrons, turn incontinent!

Obedience fail in children! slaves and fools,

Pluck the grave wrinkled senate from the bench,

And minister in their steads! to general filths

Convert o’ the instant, green virginity,

Do ‘t in your parents’ eyes! bankrupts, hold fast;

Rather than render back, out with your knives,

And cut your trusters’ throats! bound servants, steal!

Large-handed robbers your grave masters are,

And pill by law. Maid, to thy master’s bed;

Thy mistress is o’ the brothel! Son of sixteen,

Pluck the lined crutch from thy old limping sire,

With it beat out his brains! Piety, and fear,

Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,

Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighbourhood,

Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,

Degrees, observances, customs, and laws,

Decline to your confounding contraries,

And let confusion live! Plagues, incident to men,

Your potent and infectious fevers heap

On Athens, ripe for stroke! Thou cold sciatica,

Cripple our senators, that their limbs may halt

As lamely as their manners. Lust and liberty

Creep in the minds and marrows of our youth,

That ‘gainst the stream of virtue they may strive,

And drown themselves in riot! Itches, blains,

Sow all the Athenian bosoms; and their crop

Be general leprosy! Breath infect breath,

at their society, as their friendship, may

merely poison! Nothing I’ll bear from thee,

But nakedness, thou detestable town!

Take thou that too, with multiplying bans!

Timon will to the woods; where he shall find

The unkindest beast more kinder than mankind.

The gods confound–hear me, you good gods all–

The Athenians both within and out that wall!

And grant, as Timon grows, his hate may grow

To the whole race of mankind, high and low! Amen.”

Well yes, I sometimes feel that way on an off day….

If you are lucky enough to be near a participating cinema – not just in the UK but around the world, you can see a live broadcast of this production on November 1st. Details here.

From → Art, History, Media, Social, Theatre, UK

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