Timon of Athens is a thankless play, on so many levels. Unfamiliar to modern audiences, abrasive in tone, and disjointed to the point of incoherence, Shakespeare and Middleton’s play seems to push at the limits of what constitutes entertainment, like Timon’s last feast of ‘smoke and lukewarm water’ (3.6.89). The more accomplished the central actor is the less the audience will mourn his passing, while the supporting cast’s chief quality is ingratitude. For all this, AC productions give life to a play that has much to say to modern Irish audiences.
Considering Patrick Lonergan finds evidence of only 6 previous productions in the entirety of Irish theatre history, it seems fair to ask why this play, why now? We need only listen to Timon’s complaint to get an answer:
How goes the world, that I am thus encountered,/ With clamorous demands of broken bonds,/ And the detention of long-since-due debts? (2.2.38)
The play gives eloquent expression to financial instability, resonating with an audience who have experienced the good times giving way to withering debt. Some of Timon’s speeches verge on the incendiary, when he urges the bankrupt to withhold payment: ‘Large-handed robbers your grave masters are, and pill by law’ (4.1.11). Considering the continued secrecy surrounding the Irish government’s decision to bail out the banks, it remains an open question whether this counts as lawful robbery.
The staging in this production is at times reminiscent of the National theatre’s 2012 production with Simon Russell Beale: the first half is dominated by a long banqueting table, while poverty hovers on the fringes in the form of Alex Cusack’s homeless Apemantus. Later, the set resembles a dumping ground more than a forest, backed with a wire fence threaded through with green string – cleverly echoing the downward graph of the programme’s cover, an infographic of decline made from detritus.
The regendering of characters including Apemantus, Lucius and Flavius worked well to update the gender imbalance (the original gives only two parts to women, both mistresses). The most drastic was the recasting of the poet and painter as women in hotpants and leopard print, who doubled very effectively with Alcibiades’ mistresses, lending an air of desperation to their encounter with Timon in the woods begging for gold. Doubling was well thought out overall, as the small cast of nine made a virtue of necessity. Lucius, Lucullus and Sempronius donned hats and leather jackets to become Timon’s bailiffs, demanding more money under a different guise. Having them return as senators in the final scene raised questions as to whether any of Timon’s enemies would be punished, even under Alcibiades.
With a running time of just under two hours with intermission, the text was cleverly edited to focus on the central characters, dispensing with extraneous flatterers and servants. The relationship between Timon and Flavius emerged more clearly as a result, and Eilis O’Donnell’s care for her master was evident from the outset. When sent to Lucullus for money, who appeared in a silk kimono open at the neck, her vulnerability was palpable as he told her how ‘I have observed thee always for a towardly prompt spirit’ (3.1.34).
Timon of Athens is a play that relies heavily on its eponymous lead. Having seen Paul Kealyn play Falstaff in AC’s Merry Wives of Windsor in 2011, I knew his comic acting could hold the audience’s attention. His Timon felt like a natural progression, as he moved from the vibrant host of the first act to an increasingly unstable stage presence, before descending to digging in the dirt as Misanthropos. His clarity in the longer speeches was notable, which did much to carry the audience through the play’s vicissitudes.
The language of the play made me think about the extent to which ingratitude is an abiding concern of Shakespeare’s oeuvre more generally; Coriolanus, Macbeth and King Lear all spring to mind. While the production was a little rough around the edges at times, the company are to be commended for expanding the usual Shakespearean fare on offer in Dublin, and tackling one of his most obscure, and frankly obtuse works. They succeeded in making the play relatable to modern audiences, whether through deft editing of the text or contemporary touches, like the group ‘selfie’ at the feast speaking to our culture of instant gratification. As for closure, Timon of Athens offers no neat resolutions; then again, neither does recession.