Review: Timon of Athens

This week the Magdalen Players attempted to rescue Timon of Athens, notoriously regarded as one of Shakespeare’s most difficult works, from its obscurity in an atmospheric late night performance. A collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, the play is riddled with difficulties from textual tension between the two dramatists, to archetypal, one dimensional characters and digressive subplots. It follows the fortunes of overly generous patron of the arts, Timon, in Ancient Greece as his excess and indulgence leads to misanthropy and debt.

In the programme Gabriel Rolfe outlines his directorial vision, which foregrounds the play’s didacticism to present “a different breed of tragedy in its struggle, and arguably its failure, to achieve ‘life’.” The setting in the shadowy, dark wood panelled Magdalen hall is reminiscent of this “different breed of tragedy” which would have taken place before the birth of theatres in the homes of the aristocracy. He reverses the trend among recent performances, which have shifted the play to modern settings like the City or Wall Street, to evoke the medieval morality play in a “parable-like simplicity”.

The choice to stage the play inside the hall is the most successful aspect of the performance. On entering the candle-lit room each audience member receives a glass of prosecco from the circulating waiters and gradually take their seats around the centrally situated stage. The ambiguously named ‘banquet food’ for which you fork out an extra four-fifty turns out to be a strange mix of after eights, baklava, olives, and pineapples (though perhaps these latter are more for decoration since there is no way to eat them). The players mingle amongst the audience, completely collapsing the fourth wall to breed anticipation for the performance. They wear a eclectic mixture of clothing from velvet cloaks conveying decadent luxury, to 1920s dresses reflecting the Gatsby-ian theme of vacuity in society. When it does begin I miss the first few lines amongst the chattering of the audience and as a result struggle to follow the first scene. However, Dina Tsesarsky gives an interesting performance as the painter conveying an almost manic artistry as she smudges the murky portrait with her hands. 

Rolfe makes full use of the magnificent space, having Timon silhouetted by the projector in a captivating entrance. The players take their positions at the head table in a raucous feast scene which will form a tripartite structure in the play. In the reversal of Timon’s fortunes he invites the same shallow and flattering guests to dine at an empty table after they have refused to help him, and in the closing moments of the play we are given a glimpse of the first scene repeating itself reflecting the last lines to “Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each/ Prescribe to other as each other’s leech.” It is an effective and original way to portray the cyclical nature of human folly. 

Alive Rivers playing Timandra is excellent, investing the haughty courtesan with a fragility that takes her beyond being a stock character to show that she is to be pitied for being “a slave to her obsession with money”. In one of the most climactic scenes, Timon has withdrawn from society to live alone in a cave hoarding his gold. Timandra and Alcibiadies visit him and when throws his gold on the ground, she scrabbles desperately on the floor to pick up the pebbles which represent money. Simon Palfrey writes of the character of Timon that he suggests how “Depth is an illusion; inwardness no more than a raging soliloquy”. Tom Dowling, who had given a strong performance up until Timon’s break down, takes “raging” too much to heart. He attempts to portray madness simply by shouting for twenty minutes, and as a result much of his monologues are drowned out. It’s evocative and intense to watch, but ultimately misses something of the play. 

The Magdalen Players give a hit and miss performance of this demanding play. The director had recognised that there is an “uncertainty, or even impossibility, of the play’s own dramatic potential” and despite the experience of the performance being a novel one, there is an “uncertainty” about whether they carry it off.