On the London South-bank, half-way between the London Eye and the Oxo building, almost underneath Waterloo Bridge, nestles the National Theatre. An archetype of Brutalist architecture in Britain, the theatre is in the impressive position of appearing simultaneously in both the 'most popular' and 'most hated' building lists. It has housed a broad range of productions, one of the most recent and notable being War Horse, but a great many others including Frankenstein and Antigone, as well as Shakespeare works often cropping up. I was present at this historical building on Wednesday, 31st October, but despite being away from the university on Hallowe'en, I feel I may have had a somewhat similar experience as the rest of the students there. Plenty of dressing up, of course, but also fake blood, partying, an excess of expense, greed, and, in a manner not unlike trick-or-treating, a scene where feces was served up for dinner. I was, of course, viewing a little-known Shakespeare play.
Oh, not obvious? Maybe I'll go into a little more detail. Timon (pronounced like Simon) of Athens is a work we're lucky to have knowledge of at this time at all. In 1623 the publisher of the first collected edition of Shakesparrow's plays was having trouble obtaining the rights to Troilus and Cressida, intended to follow Romeo and Juliet in the tragedies section. At the last minute, they grabbed Timon of Athens to fill the gap. We can only hope that plays don't have feelings.
The play contains an ambiguous moral to say the least. The first Act sees Timon (Simon Russell Beale) throwing great banquets and giving presents of expensive jewels to his friends. They flatter and feast and generally make merry until Timon's steward (Or in this production, Flavia the stewardess, played by Deborah Findley) is forced to point out that his money is fast dwindling. Our tragic hero turns to his friends for help, but as it is perhaps possible to guess, every single one can think of an excuse preventing them from returning even a small portion of the generosity displayed to them over the years. My personal favourite was the character (I forget which) who was too offended to give any money, because Timon had not come to them first.
Timon releases an extraordinary amount of rage, loses all his wealth and abandoned his class. Shortly before abandoning Athens completely and making for the wasteland beyond, he throws one final grand supper. Unlike earlier in the play the plates are covered, and somehow the vision flitted through my mind, of what might be on them. Timon gives an impressive speech on the feeling of generosity being met by greed, and the favour never returned. His guests, bound by social convention, sit there spell-bound, and when are told to dig into the feast, uncover plates of excrement. Still they sit (though gagging and choking) to hear Timon out, though the spell is broken when he lifts a handful of their 'meal' to palm it onto a guest's head, and they flee.
Whatever anyone says, Shakespeare knew how to keep the audiences coming, and was not afraid of shocking, repulsing, and insulting his viewers. But Timon was not intending this as a prank, to be forgiven in time. The remainder of the play explores his all-consuming rage with everything Athens is and fails to be, and eventually dies. But it is off-stage, and quiet, and the audience never truly finds out if it is suicide, or by another means. It is a sad death, given no spotlight, nothing overly-dramatic. Now he's no longer freely handing out his wealth, no one is interested in whether Timon is alive or dead. All except the one redeeming character of this play, the stewardess Flavia.
The production was an enjoyable one. I appreciate modern dress in Shakespeare when it is well done, as this was. The scenery and costumes served to show how relevant dear Shakesparrow still is. Particularly appropriate was the scene of the rebelling lower classes camping in modern 2-man tents and brandishing placards. I also liked seeing a work I'd never even heard of, it will be perfect to compare to King Lear, as the most clear example, as well as many other works of Shakespeare's. In addition, one of my favourite things about theatre is the audience themselves. Sharing the atmosphere, laughing, groaning, flinching together, only adds to the experience.
Indeed, it is due to the audience that I experienced the most entertaining conversation I've heard in sometime, as was related by my mother to friend Amy and I in the interval. Two ladies having a conversation in the toilets:
"So, what was it he'd served up to his guests?"
"It... it was faeces."
"Oh! I thought it was poo!"
Fortunate, perhaps, that Shakespeare would never have over-heard that conversation from where they were situated, even if it had been the correct century.
Yours, feeling cultured,