Britain was on a 17-day high during the Olympics, as if all of Her Majesty’s green and pleasant land were giggly drunk on Pimm’s. The Games went off flawlessly. Team GB won 29 gold medals, humbling far bigger countries. Then—poof!—the euphoria vanished the moment Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend of The Who ended the closing ceremonies in a blur of windmilling arms.
The grim headlines returned almost immediately: double-dip recession, Libor scandal, banking crisis, useless fat-cat executives and sovereign debt galore. And what better way to newly indulge this rousing bout of negativity than a 400-year-old piece of theatre called Timon of Athens. You’re not an ignoramus if you can’t guess the author’s name. It was Shakespeare himself, likely with some help from one of his era’s other great playwrights and satirists, Thomas Middleton. The play is one of Shakespeare’s least known, least performed works.
Timon of Athens opened at London’s National Theatre in July, and it has been a smash hit. It will also appear in cinemas across Canada on Nov. 1 as part of the NT Live program. Credit—or blame—the hard times in which we live. You can imagine the play’s director, Nicholas Hytner (who is also director of the NT), asking himself: Which of the bard’s plays is most relevant to the post-financial crisis world? Part comedy, part tragedy and entirely cynical, Timon of Athens is a lacerating denunciation of greed and the power of money to corrupt everything it touches. Wealth alienates Timon, the protagonist, from society, and society from itself. No wonder the play was one of Karl Marx’s favourite Shakespearean works.
Shakespeare’s language could have been ripped from a Wall Street analyst’s report. The characters sprinkle their dialogue with biz terms. Lucullus, one of Timon’s friends, warns that “this is no time to lend money, especially upon bare friendship, without security.” A debt collector named Hortensius says, “I think one business does command us all; for mine is money.”
The plot is simple. Timon, a man the audience knows virtually nothing about, has vast wealth and renown. “I am wealthy in my friends,” he announces. Hytner opens the play with a mess of tents from the Occupy movement, which give way to a gathering of glitterati in the “Timon Room” of what is obviously London’s National Gallery. An enormous painting, El Greco’s Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple, hangs over them. Timon’s guests are look-alikes for Madonna, London mayor Boris Johnson and David Beckham, most of them shameless sycophants who swarm around their host like asset strippers fastened onto a bloated, dying company.
Timon, played brilliantly by Simon Russell Beale, lavishes his friends with money and gifts. He buys art from one friend, gives his horse to another and stands bail for yet another to spring him from debtor’s prison. We have no idea what motivates him, or why a man who was able to accumulate wealth with alacrity fails to stop giving it away before he goes broke.
And broke he goes. When the impoverished Timon asks his friends for financial help, they refuse, and he turns on them. He holds one last lavish dinner, serves them steaming plates of excrement and disappears from the city and society, raging against the rich in his decayed urban wilderness like an insolvent Lear. “Destruction fang mankind!” he bellows. Improbably, he finds a stash of gold, gives it away to the poor and to the rebels from the Occupy movement. In a final act of cynicism, as Timon dies offstage in a presumed suicide, Shakespeare has the newly empowered rebels join forces with the ruling elite.
Unlike many of Shakespeare’s other plays, the moral is murky. There is no promise of a better future rising from the rubble.
As a parallel to modern Britain, where resentment simmers constantly against corrupt heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bankers and the European debt crisis, Timon of Athens works like a treat, even if its lack of character development and wit have relegated it to the cellar of Shakespeare’s folios. If the play had been produced in the pre-crisis years—say, 2007—it probably would have flopped.
In today’s harsh economic climate, it is hard to argue with Timon of Athens’s take-away—that money can be poisonous. But some of us who covered the Olympics came away with a different nuance. The success of the London Games was not a direct result of the tons of sterling banknotes airdropped by sponsors such as McDonald’s and Coca-Cola. Rather, it was the result of the efforts of 70,000 volunteers, everyone from drivers to the dancing nurses in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremonies, who worked to ensure the whole glorious event powered forward like Mo Farah. It was a fine example of generosity, civic pride and big-hearted multicultural friendliness that showed that vast amounts of money alone do not necessarily improve society. In Timon of Athens, money tears it down.