By Liam Lacey
Dirty, nasty money is the subject of Timon of Athens, the latest production in the Stratford Festival’s decade-long project to create an HD-video record all of Shakespeare’s plays. Karl Marx, naturally, was a fan of the play. And for all of you who want to try a deeper cut of Shakespeare oeuvre without the bourgeois Stratford Festival price tag, a movie ticket is a good proletariat solution.
Timon is a rarely produced — and not terribly likeable — play. The principle character turns from being an affable, generous spendthrift to a broke, vengeful misanthrope, raging against the vileness of humanity. The play itself feels somehow unhomogenized: a satiric first-act banquet scene is lively and satiric, the middle rather repetitious, and the last two acts bleakly hellish.
That said, the 2017 Stratford production, directed by Stephen Ouimette, is a good production: brisk, well-performed, and well-designed. This is a modern-dress version, which makes it easy to identify our uniformed servants and generals from the various artists, fops, flatterers and freeloaders who throng around Timon’s house for free meals and loans. There are a few other modern touches, including some shock-and-awe light and sound effects for the climactic battle scene but it doesn’t need to strain for spurious topicality.
In the title role, Joseph Ziegler does a fine job in both of Timon’s personalities. At the beginning, he’s the sunny, compulsively generous bon vivant in the grey suit who can’t see a friend without giving him a gift, buying something from him or paying for his entertainment. Later, living in the forest outside of Athens, stripped down to a torn shirt and covered in sores, he’s less a noble tragic figure than an enraged child, crying out at the betrayal he feels he has suffered.
Timon blames everyone but himself and his all-consuming bitterness feels disproportionate. (The most coherent analysis of his character focuses on his “excess of feeling.”) When he accidentally discovers a bunch of gold while digging for roots to eat, he doesn’t see it as a second chance. Instead, he uses the money to support the destruction of Athens, advocating the murder of babies and all.
Timon’s foil is the philosopher and town grump Apemantus (Ben Carlson, nicely sardonic), looking like an unkempt graduate student. His main pleasure in life is to hang around to insult Timon and vent his spleen about all the sycophants he collects. He’s the kind of killjoy who brings a book and his own bag of carrots to Timon’s banquet. Late in the play, Apemantus shows up as a sympathetic visitor to the isolated Timon. As someone who lacks humanity, he can’t be disappointed by it. He points out Timon’s tendency to over-react: “…the middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.”
One area where the play is distinctly not modern is the absence of female characters, except for dancers and hookers. At his first big banquet, four dancers come onstage for some whooping, shimmying and mock lap-dancing (putting the t&a in T of A, but it goes on too long). There are some attempts in the production to remedy the gender imbalance. There’s a non-speaking woman guest at the banquet in the first act, and another as a servant.
Late in the play, the sympathetic if vengeful military leader, Alcibiades (Tim Campbell), shows up to Timon’s outpost on his way to invading Athens for mistreating a friend. He’s accompanied by two camp followers, Phrynia and Timandra. Timon offers the women gold if they will ruin Athens from within by spreading venereal disease among the men. As an early example of biological warfare, this is intriguing but it’s a bit heavy-handed to have the prostitutes actually dressed in military army uniforms. First, it’s confusing. And second, it’s unlikely to help their mission.
Timon of Athens. Directed by Barry Averich for the screen and by Stephen Ouimette for the stage. Written by William Shakespeare. Starring Joseph Ziegler, Ben Carlson, and Tim Campbell. Opens April 22.