When the audience make their way to Timon of Athens they will tread through the cloisters of Magdelen and up a stone staircase to the medieval banqueting hall. Met by a lavish champagne reception, they will be immersed in the world of the play in the company of cast members, who will burst into brief snippets of action as the ban- quet treads the boundary between reality and the theatrical. When the curtain comes up, the audience will take their seats not only for the play at which they are spectators, but for the banquet at which they are esteemed guests.
The play follows Timon, a noble lord of Ath- ens, through his descent from opulent wealth and social renown to the crisis of exile in an existential wilderness. It defies genre; Shakespeare, still in tragedy-mode after penning King Lear and Coriolanus, collaborated with the satirist Thomas Middleton, who wrote large sections of the play. The character of Timon, in particular, defies the tragic genre, so immune is he to the audience’s sympathy. Ambiguity is at the heart of the play, and the director of Magdelen’s production, Gabriel Rolfe, at- tempts to veer away from the approach of many contemporary adaptations, which have heavily contextualised the play in an attempt to demystify it. Rolfe acknowledges that “the beguiling absence of human, and particularly familial, relationships fits perfectly with a Wall Street setting, for example”, but his vision is never to rationalise the play, rather to preserve and amplify its obscurities. He wants the audi- ence to feel uncomfortable.
Since the play is situated in a kind of ‘nether- land’, while the banqueting hall will be luxuri- ous, the costume remains non-descript, as any specific period dress would betray the vision of a timeless setting. The experience of the play aims to be dream-like, and the lighting will be crucial in creating the disorienting feel of the second half, when it is ambiguous whether the audience is experiencing events objectively, or from within the mind of the protagonist. A dissonant, atonal arrangement of Purcell’s Timon Opera punctuates the play at intervals, as the drunken pianist totters over to the piano to hammer out what Rolfe describes as a “poisoned” version of Purcell’s original music.
“It’s the quintessential Oxford experience: black tie, Medieval hall, Shakespeare”, says producer, Frank Lawton, after discussing the decision to include two gala performances in the run of four shows, at which formal dress and banquet food will add to the luxurious at- mosphere. Rolfe hopes the audience’s elegant attire at these performances will help them immerse themselves even more authentically in the play.
The event is sure to hold all of the celebration and tradition that one would expect from a Magdalen garden show, but the performance of Timon of Athens, stripped back to its obscuri- ties and absurdities and reduced to an hour and a half of intense theatre, will bring the audience into the disorienting world of magic realism. Rolfe’s final comment resonates over the panelled walls and stone floors of the hall: “It’s Shakespeare doing Beckett before Beckett”.