Apt tale of debt and ruin

23:59, Nov 27 2012

National Theatre Live's Nicholas Hytner is director of a long-neglected Shakespearean play which, up until recently, has been rarely staged. Timon of Athens has had a resurgence of interest because it is very much a play of our time.

The Bard's coldest and bleakest play is a strange tale of consumption, debt and ruin. It is written with bitter and dramatic satire. Given its subject, it is easily transferred from its ancient setting in Athens to London and from ancient to modern times. The play opens with a swanky sponsors' party in the "Timon Room" of a London gallery.

It is said to be written in collaboration with Renaissance dramatist Thomas Middleton. Due to the play's unfinished nature it doesn't naturally break into a five-act structure and some experts consider it to be only a theatrical experiment.

In the first scene, Timon, a patron of the arts and ostentatious host, is surrounded by freeloaders and sycophants. Soon afterwards he hosts a lavish dinner complete with an erotic pas de deux choreographed by the Royal Ballet's Edward Watson.

Even after vastly outspending his resources and emptying his coffers, Timon is quick to reassure his loyal steward, Flavius, that all will be well. However, he then discovers that friendship is a commodity which must be purchased, and his erstwhile associates have no thoughts of coming to his aid.

After a final, vengeful banquet, a disillusioned Timon becomes an outcast and withdraws to a literal and emotional wasteland, living off roots where he pours out curses on a morally bankrupt city. When he discovers an underground trove of gold, his final act of revenge is to give the treasure away to the underdogs of society.

Simon Russell Beale, described by the Independent newspaper as "the greatest stage actor of his generation", is Timon, with Deborah Findlay playing his chief steward. Tim Hatley's design has placed the action in high-end London's Eden Square, with the second half in the wilderness.

This bitter and dramatic satire has an upfront message to us all on the insulating effect of wealth in our current credit-card society.

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Nelson