Can Shakespeare illuminate the crisis?

The National Theatre is scouring Ancient Greece, via Timon of Athens, for moral thoughts on the recession.

Patrick Marmion

Topics Culture

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A Shakespeare play about a Greek who takes on too much debt and is then hung out to dry by his friends? It is surely a gift of a play, the very thing which we have been looking for to act as a metaphor not just for the financial crisis in general, but for the Eurozone crisis in particular. The miracle is perhaps that the UK National Theatre’s artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, hadn’t thought of staging Timon of Athens before.

With Simon Russell Beale in the title role, the modern-dress production is certain to be a big hit. It also ticks the social-commentary boxes and maintains the National Theatre’s need to be ‘relevant’. Hytner ensures, moreover, that the play is staged as a thoroughly contemporary parable of consumption, debt and ruin. Timon and the wealthy nobility of Ancient Greece are suited and booted as corporate stiffs in a world hermetically sealed from ordinary people who are here presented as whistle-blasting rioters protesting noisily but at the security gates.

Inside what is surely the Sainsbury Wing of London’s National Gallery, the play kicks off with a champagne reception celebrating a sponsorship deal in ‘The Timon Room’. The room houses what else but El Greco’s painting of Jesus casting out moneylenders from the temple. While Timon bathes in the spectacle of his munificence, the collection of favoured artists and groupies clutching flutes of bubbly fill out a world in which Shakespeare’s vision of Ancient Greece seems to map perfectly on to the twenty-first century.

This is perhaps even more gorgeously accomplished when, at the dinner after, Timon treats his guests not only to lavish silver service but also to a performance of experimental modern dance between courses. His bounty is seemingly endless and he accepts small gifts only with great reluctance. And yet, his generosity is his hubris. It is indiscriminate and little does he know that he is setting himself up for a fall. And fall he does, in a perfect storm of creditors demanding cash back and the discovery that he has ‘mortgaged all’. Needless to say, none of his adoring hangers-on are on hand to bail him out. Their bums cannot be seen for dust.

After the interval, therefore, Timon descends into the fiscal underworld – that is to say a concrete jungle of former car parks and underpasses haunted by the homeless. Here, his former generosity of spirit is transmuted into its vociferous bile. As angry as he was once irenic, he hitches his wagon to the city’s famous chief cynic, Apemantus, who he had scoffed at in his time of wealth. Where before Timon extolled civic virtues and culture, now he denounces civilisation and turns to wild animals for solidarity.

Timon’s misanthropy is deliciously mirrored in Shakespeare’s language, which trades in the runaway inflation of linguistic hyperbole of the flattery and brownnosing in the first half for the jaundiced dyspepsia of the second half. Once he’s down and out, one young woman snarls ‘thy lips rot off’. Even the cynic Apemantus is insufficiently jaded for Timon, who carps: ‘Would thou were clean enough to spit upon.’ Biliousness and worthlessness therefore turn out to be the flipside of Timon’s largesse and altruism.

In Timon’s pomp, Russell Beale proves to be good casting and finds unaffected sincerity in his character’s goodwill. This is surely an attempt to take Timon’s otherwise phoney generosity seriously. But in the second half, when Timon is reduced to sleeping rough and pushing his chariot of dispossession (an overloaded shopping trolley), he is less convincing. His rage is as theatrical as was his bonhomie. Russell Beale remains a cuddly bear and it is hard to feel menaced by his raillery. He is simply too nice.

Perhaps, however, the answer to the ostensible contradiction in Timon’s character lies in the supernatural dimension of the play, which Hytner’s production skates over all too quickly. In the properly materialistic world of contemporary capitalism that Hytner’s production evokes, the play’s references to the gods and fate come across as residual anachronisms – for example, saying grace before a feast. And yet money assumes a godlike power to raise up and lay low. Capital giveth and capital taketh away, you might say. Marx is even quoted in the programme as calling money ‘the visible divinity’ (as well as ‘the universal whore and pimp’). But actually, it is precisely the divinity of money that is suppressed by the production.

Despite the mountain of faith invested in it, money is traditionally considered the non-spiritual commodity par excellence. Money is popularly believed to be the bottom line of the real world: money talks, bullshit walks. Hard currency designates what’s real and what’s not, kettling religious delusion. And yet in this otherwise hardnosed vision of Shakespeare’s play, once the iron grill covering Timon’s secret stash of gold is shoved aside, ominous music sounds and yellow light shines up through mists of dry ice. It’s almost as if this slick, metropolitan production falls foul to the return of the spiritual, repressed with a cheesy vision of the supernatural worthy of a low-budget horror film.

This disavowed spiritual dimension of money is an unresolved remainder which Hytner’s production fails to integrate. You could argue that it corresponds to the cod religiosity of today’s Buddhist banker hoarding millions in off-shore shrines. Equally, you could argue that it’s not necessary to integrate the supernatural which begets corny spiritualism or fundamentalist violence the world over.

But the question remains: why must we go back to feudal visions of Ancient Greece for metaphors of contemporary capitalism? There is precious little economic similarity between Timon and today. Shakespeare cannot and need not have anticipated the way fiscal value runs free in derivatives, hedge funds, collateralised debt and quantitative easing. The play is therefore necessarily only a partial or pseudo response to today’s ills. It not only raises the suspicion that rather than being a rebuke to modern credit culture, it is actually a conservative strategy for avoiding the facts of a global crisis while appearing to tackle them head on. This would be the task of a new play on the same subject. Instead we are treated to something more familiar and moralistic from the theatrical canon.

If Timon of Athens is to be regarded as an offering from the past for our times, we should be rather more wary and recall a much older adage before accepting it: beware Greeks bearing gifts.

Patrick Marmion is a freelance journalist, playwright, founder of Soapbox debating forum and a part-time tutor at the University of Kent.

Timon of Athens is playing at the Olivier Theatre in the National Theatre, London until 31 October 2012.

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Topics Culture


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