Review: Timon of Athens

TOBY PARKER REES feels ‘lines like “You knot of mouth-friends” deserve to be heard’ and this production does them justice.

16th – 20th February, 7.00 at the Corpus Playrooms. £5-6.

Directed by Morgan Ring.


In Akala’s 2008 song Comedy Tragedy History he continues to assert himself as ‘Shakespeare with a nigga twist’ by fitting every one of that bard of bard’s plays into his lyrics. This is the end of the first verse: ‘I don’t know about Timon/I know he was in Athens’. Few do know much about this play. It’s one of those difficult ones you can’t just dash off with a strobe and a costume dichotomy. Morgan Ring should be commended for putting it on – lines like ‘You knot of mouth-friends!’ deserve to be heard.

She should also be commended for a thoroughly enjoyable production. It is one of the first times I have seen Shakespeare and been continually and pleasantly surprised by the directorial choices. It started fairly unimpressively, but this was actually to its credit, as it enabled a slow descent from Timon’s dull excesses to his bankruptcy and eventual utter insanity.

I say dull, but this is not a slight; George Greenbury plays the central character as, essentially, Timon-nice-but-dim. He is not a bright and charismatic host (although he certainly thinks he is); he is a dullard with deep pockets, and is only liked as long as he is able to be generous. This Waughian characterisation was one of the main things elevating the production above the standard Shakespeare that is tossed out about eight times a term. The protagonists of his plays are, of course, eternally lacking in judgement, but to play one as actually stupid was a bold and effective move. A stupid man is much more likely to react to ruination by going and sulking in a cave, after all.

Timon’s madness, as the madness of an idiot, is fascinating. Fumbling and petulant, lines like ‘destruction fang mankind’ and ‘I am Misanthropos’ are gloriously bathetic. In the play’s best scene this flawed abandon plays with a satisfying strangeness off Joe Hardy’s atonal barbs. Neither actor settles for the standard RSC portrayal of railing outsider, a tedious Paul O’Grady sort of wit, or the similarly tired archetype of Shakespearean madness, now appropriated to death by Russell Brand. Here, rather, we see two people it would be truly uncomfortable to talk to, talking uncomfortably to each other. It becomes Beckettian in its disjointed bitterness.

It is a shame that no one seems to have told James Sharpe that the production was to involve this sort of heightened realism. It is a strangely apt metaphor for a recession tragicomedy that the best lines were given to an actor who strangled them in stiff pantomime. What could have been a wonderful Dudley Moore-John Gielgud relationship between this Timon and his steward foundered in Sharpe’s stilted, adenoidal delivery. The awkward firmness of his gestures in soliloquy brought to mind the clumsy demagoguery of a Nick Griffin address.

It is unfair to single out one actor, and Sharpe is by no means uniquely at fault, he is simply an effective metonym for the flaws of this production. The acting was distinctly uneven. The concept was excellent but not fully accomplished. Overall, however, Timon of Athens is worth your time. It is most likely the best production of the play you’ll see for a while.