Greece, greed, Timon of Athens and a Miliband moment
Fresh from Greece with a head full of observations and thoughts on the Greek catastrophe, I went to see Timon of Athens at the National Theatre. Amidst all of the puffery around Shakespeare and the Olympics, especially the misconceived 37 plays in 37 different languages, it was good to see a political play, brilliantly staged, that is relevant to our current crisis. I’ve had enough of art being a soft chaser to the hard liquor of Olympic sport, it’s far more important.
Let the play begin
The Occupy tents before curtain up, hooded protestors, Timon’s employees carrying out their cardboard boxes Lehman’s style; were perfectly pitched, not too pushy. This lightness of touch was exactly what was needed, as it would have been easy to be heavy-handed on the Greek thing. This approach leaves the audience free to use their imagination and to read their own significance into characters and events, and believe me opportunity knocked in almost every scene.
The play’s about people, not places, and the eternal human drivers of status and that ever-present, insidious monster– greed. Beware of men in suits and ties (another nice touch), the professional politicians, government officials and above all, the titled oligarchs and the rich. Greed and mutual back-scratching keeps their boat afloat but also lurks like a shark just below the surface and consumes anyone who shows weakness. When Timon sinks, he is tossed overboard.
In a stroke of genius, the opening scene shows Timon at a wine and canapé opening of a special wing in an Art Gallery named after him as benefactor – ‘The Timon Room’. Later, during a party he introduces two dancers who do a macabre ballet scene, a reference no doubt to the corporate sponsorship of high art. Quite brave I thought.
Money, money, money...
Greed manifests itself as money and the Director does a great job here with luxury goods, jewellery, coins thrown about the stage and, as if pulled from the underworld, gold bullion. The misuse of money leads, in the end to violence and revolution. Before then Timon spends like a madman, caring not how it will all be paid for, the suits take the banknotes and want more and more. It’s all take and no give, so the state, and Timon, become bankrupt. Money affects the mind. In Timon’s case it leads to misanthropy and madness. Unsurprisingly, Marx used the play to tease out the economic consequences of the misuse of capital.
Not a problem
This is usually seen as one of Shakespeare’s ‘problem plays’ and weak on structure and plot. I disagree. It’s a dagger of a script that plunges right into the heart of money and greed. It doesn’t wander off and back again, no tangents and asides, just the relentless pursuit of personal gain at the expense of the public good. It seems, oddly, to be a play of two halves. This has been seen as a weakness, I think not. It’s a catastrophic fall where a man and a state collapse through the mismanagement of budgets and the failure to control greed. This is no 50 shades of grey just a black and white tale of good versus evil.
We got two returns at the last minute which turned out to be almost the best seats in the house, bang centre, right at the front of the stalls. Curiously, at the end, I stood turned round in my seat to go, and there behind me, was Ed Miliband, in a suit, of course. There was a man behind him with his hand on his shoulder – Miliband looked as though he wished he had never come.