Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out
Haff, Stephen, American Theatre
No Shakespeare play has been subjected to so furious, sharply divided and sustained debate over its basic merit as Timon of Athens. The play is seldom produced, in part because it seems unfinished. It lacks Shakespeare's usual consistency of poetic genius, the second half is haphazardly structured and some speakers are even left without names. The military subplot is ill-conceived or incomplete, and the title character, with his unmitigated extremes, is often thought an emblem or a symbol, not a real human being. Few people know the play, and those who've heard of it often inherit more surrounding controversy than theatrical substance.
Nonetheless, given that most contemporary Shakespeare is director's theatre, Timon's absence from the stage seems odd: Texts are chopped and rearranged and reset so thoroughly that the canon is forever new. Certified flaws may actually seem apertures of opportunity for prying open the play and reconfiguring it at will. "Unfinished" becomes a special invitation.
Director Michael Langham, whose production of Timon runs through Jan. 5 at New York's National Actors Theatre, was fascinated by the challenge of "finishing" Shakespeare's work--reordering scenes, matching names to speeches, boldly amputating lifeless text--but he was attracted to the play for primarily emotional reasons. "I've been lucky enough to do a lot of Shakespeare in my life," he says. "Working with a dead author you're always searching for what or who is the real person; where do you hear the heartbeat, where do you hear the pain or the joy? I felt I was closer to the real voice, a very vulnerable voice of total despair, closer to Shakespeare in this play than I have felt with any other."
Story of monumental loss
The story is one of monumental loss and disillusionment. Timon, a wealthy Athenian lord, freely gives his fortune away to those he believes are his friends. When his riches evaporate and he appeals to those same friends for help, they deny him outright. In his pain, horror and fury, Timon spurns Athens to live in a remote forest cave, where he curses the species that has so brutalized him. While digging in the earth for root vegetables to sustain him, he uncovers a stash of buried gold. Almost immediately a parade of opportunists descends upon him, professing friendship while begging pay. Timon rebukes them all, giving gold only to his soldier friend Alcibiades, who is leading an attack on Athens. Having exhausted his supply of vitriol, Timon composes his own epitaph and dies in his chosen grave by the sea.
If artists and critics alike have been flummoxed by the severe contrast between the first half's convivial swirl and the second's desolate, cold procession, perhaps it's because the play journeys too far afield from versions of reality ratified by realistic drama, where "consistency" and "smooth evolution" or "gradual unveiling" are representation's virtues. In fact, sudden, extreme reversals frequently are the rhythm of life; human behavior is the instant, stark divide. But the total barrenness of Timon's emotional destination, his reckless rush from society to solitude, can prove too uncomfortable for audiences when there aren't any amenities or delays, just a plunge from buoyant satire into heartbreak.
This transition works, as Langham and actor Brian Bedford demonstrate, if you understand its source. Timon's excessively passionate dedication to a simple credo, "Give without receiving," seems in Bedford's portrayal to be generated by a lack of self-love and a fundamental mistrust of friendship and humanity itself. Bedford's Timon has to make a world where he can trust and believe and love, because his inner impulse is to question the value of those feelings. …