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Timon of Athens at the Folger Theatre

Colin Macdonald (CUNY Graduate Center)

Look through major works of Shakespeare criticism and you will find Timon of Athens variously described as “baffling,” “curious,” “unfinished,” “abandoned,” “a mistake,” “the strangest of Shakespeare’s plays.” Such classifications make the clarity and force achieved in the recent production of the play at the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC, under the direction of Robert Richmond and anchored by Ian Merrill Peakes’s strong turn as Timon, all the more impressive. In a theatrical period packed full of recent productions of Cymbeline or Pericles or the Henry VI plays, Timon must, perhaps alongside King John, be the least-performed Shakespeare play of our era. The Folger production is a timely reminder of how effective and moving Timon can be in the right dramaturgical hands. 

 The play takes place in something resembling the modern world: suits and iPhones and electronic music. The set consists of a two-level cage-like structure with a long, narrow video screen on the façade. Hanging over the front-center of the stage is a large light in the shape of the “talents” (units of money) that Timon gives away with such abandon. Peakes portrays Timon as having an obsessive-compulsive disorder and deep social anxiety. One of the play’s ironies is Timon’s solitude even before he casts off society and becomes Misanthropos: he has no family or genuine friendships. His OCD, demonstrated via obsessive hand-cleansing and a ritualistic tic when ascending stairs, emphasizes his apartness and alienation; at one point Ventidius, released from prison due to Timon’s largesse, hugs Timon and he nearly collapses from the trauma of the physical encounter. 

Timon’s false friends are played as cartoonishly shallow, but this is in keeping with how they appear on the page, as allegorical manifestations of greed and hypocrisy. Eric Hissom portrays the acerbic Cynic philosopher Apemantus with wry detachment, and yet also with a hint of joie de vivre, of enjoyment of his satirical role. Indeed, one of the more interesting and successful directorial choices is to make Apemantus less a vicious outsider than an eccentric intimate: when he arrives at Timon’s he is greeted by applause from all the characters whom he will proceed to insult. His slings and arrows are largely accepted in good humor: Apemantus here is more the wise fool than virulent polemicist. His darker commentary takes the form of asides for the audience that the characters do not hear. He does, however, still warn Timon directly of the consequences of his actions. Indeed, one of the play’s mysteries is the naïveté with which Timon sees the world, his willful denial of an obvious reality. This production, while not exculpating Timon for his vanity, hints that he acts out of desperation for meaningful human connections in a world so debased by wealth and technology that only money can convey affection. 

Although the set and the gadgetry—Flavius (an excellent Antoinette Robinson) uses a palm-sensor tablet to beam virtual “talents” to characters whose faces and names are projected on the screen—occasionally remind one more of a spaceship than an actual corporate suite, overall the use of technology is smart and effective, with iPhones, for example, signaling nearly everyone’s descent into narcissism. When Flavius beseeches Timon’s false friends for a loan, they are too distracted with their smartphones to pay her much attention. When Lucullus finally does give her his attention, his only interest is in trying, unsuccessfully, to seduce her. And after Timon’s hysterical break at the mock feast, which involves his serving and then smearing his guests and himself with feces (not the “water and stones” of the text) as they scream and retch, he records a selfie, which will surely cause a stir on Instagram. The fecal feast is a revolting but apt directorial choice for a play that Kenneth Burke described as about “a foul form of gold … an ironically Midas-like gold, fecal gold, gold as defined by the touch that turns everything into corruption everywhere.”[1] 

After Timon’s traumatic awareness of the spurious and corrupt nature of society and his friendships, he storms up the stairs, making an emphatic point of not indulging his compulsive tic of stopping and stepping sideways before continuing upward. I thought at this point that in the second half, when Timon becomes Misanthropos, he would have shed his OCD, when he no longer had to repress the knowledge of the falseness that surrounded him. However, the OCD habits return when the second act begins, and this continuum between the two Timons makes perfect sense: Timon is now as extreme in his vicious isolation as he was in his excessive bounty. As Apemantus comments, “The middle of humanity though never knewest, but the extremity of both ends” (4.3.300–01). 

The apex of the play is Apemantus’s visitation with Misanthropos. Because of the earlier characterization of Apemantus and Timon as having real affection for each other, having something as close to friendship as exists in the world of the play, the scene of their reunion is more than just the invective-spewing contest that it can sometimes seem. In fact, they remarkably are able to achieve tenderness, culminating in a desperate embrace, without surrendering to sentimentality. The scene becomes redolent of Lear with his Fool. The slew of insults that concludes their meeting—“Beast!” “Slave!” “Toad!” “Rogue!”—has the spirit of friendly mockery, though Timon’s despair is so thick that this friendship cannot sustain him, as neither can Flavius’s demonstration of profound honesty: “I do proclaim / One honest soul—mistake me not, but one, / No more, I pray—and she’s a steward” (4.3.488–90). 

The playtext is heavily redacted: the production runs two hours with intermission. The often vague plot has been streamlined and worked into clarity, without sacrificing the essence of Shakespeare’s (and Middleton’s?) vision. Much of the machinations of Alcibiades and the senate in the second half are cut, and things are arranged so Athens is spared following Timon’s encounter with the senators, after which he enacts a kind of self-sacrifice—“but say to Athens, / Timon hath made his everlasting mansion / Upon the beached verge of the salt flood”—as he stands transfixed under the glow of the low-hanging, talent-shaped overhead light. This same posture and the white-noise sound effect that accompanies it also opened the play. But now the light above Timon is not that given off from gold, but something akin to, if not enlightenment or peace, at least self-knowledge. 

[1] Kenneth Burke, “Timon of Athens and Misanthropic Gold,” in Kenneth Burke on Shakespeare, ed. Scott L. Newstok (West Layfayette, IN: Parlor Press, 2007): 108.

  

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