Rather like his unforgettable production of Hamlet, Nicholas Hytner has brought Shakespeare’s — and, it is thought, co-writer Thomas Middleton’s — rarely staged Timon of Athens bang up to date. Occupy-style rebels have pitched their tents in Athens’ streets. But this is undoubtedly London and the protestors’ enemy is an establishment populated by the super-rich, symbolised in Tim Hatley’s simple window design as a view of Canary Wharf’s towers.
King of the pile is Simon Russell Beale’s sharp-suited Timon, a man whose pathological generosity buys him friends of the fair-weather kind. They pocket his largesse only to turn their backs when he runs out of money and the debt collectors come calling.
Hytner turns the play into a parable that feels completely and utterly now — a commentary on our society’s values.
Before Timon’s financial crash, politicians join the party of excess with as much enthusiasm as the bankers. And just as familiar is how the money men realise that Timon is about as safe an investment as a subprime mortgage. Rebels stalk the streets in hoodies like last August’s rioters, and their Irish-accented leader Alcibiades, played by Ciaran McMenamin, eventually becomes a suited establishment figure who shakes hands with his former enemy, rather like that other Irish revolutionary, Martin McGuinness.
It is not that Hytner is necessarily inviting criticism of these figures. But something subversive happens when our world is reflected so vividly on stage. The play opens with Timon and his followers at the launch of a gallery named The Timon Room, and you have to wonder whether Hytner had the National’s own hugely generous sponsor Lloyd Dorfman — after whom the Cottesloe stage will be renamed — in mind when he thought of the idea.
Russell Beale gives a typically mesmerising performance that climaxes with Timon emerging out of the gloom as a tramp pushing a shopping trolley. Before that shocking moment the arrogance that so often goes with wealth is never over-emphasised, and nor is the bitterness that comes with its loss.
Yet more than any single performance, by far the strongest impression here is of a play and production created for our time.