Timon of Athens is living large on credit – throwing lavish dinners, supporting every artist that shows up at his door to flatter him, and being celebrated by the pals who are the beneficiaries of his generous gifts.
But soon enough, the bill collectors come to call. It turns out that not only are Timon’s coffers bare – but, in some cases, he’s been borrowing from the very people he’s been spending on. He finds himself without a friend to back him in his hour of need – and heads off into the wilderness.
I couldn’t help but find it a little ironic that the cautionary tale of Timon should be the first to open this season in the Stratford Festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre – premiering just days after the provincial Liberal government pledged $20-million in capital funding to rebuild the Patterson as, coincidentally I’m sure, an election looms in the middle distance.
The press release that got left on journalists’ seats reads like the first scene of Timon of Athens in the mutual-admiration society it depicts.
“The Stratford Festival is a premier theatre festival and cultural destination for tourists from across the province, the country and the world,” says the generous minister of tourism. Replies the thankful Stratford artistic director, “We are extremely grateful for the vote of confidence in this critical project and are committed to creating a significant new asset for the city and the province, one that will pay dividends culturally and economically for decades to come.”
This euphemism and flummery in the temple of Shakespeare is enough to turn you into Apemantus – the cynical fellow who sourly interrupts everyone who toasts Timon: “He that loves to be flattered is worthy o’ the flatterer.”
Timon of Athens is certainly open to a wide range of topical interpretations from across the political spectrum – whether you rail against deficit spending or the profligacy of the one per cent. The strange, sometimes only sketched-in play credited to William Shakespeare feels unusually contemporary – and seems to be half satirical city comedy, half theatre of the absurd in Stephen Ouimette’s organically modern-dress production.
Timon is played by Joseph Ziegler – a veteran actor with a crackling voice who, almost every holiday season, plays a wonderful Scrooge in Toronto. His character trajectory here is, as an essay in the program notes, the opposite – from giddy generosity toward total misanthropy.
The first half of Ouimette’s production is as flashy as Timon’s fair-weather friends. A brace of male Stratford actors get the chance to flop around in fancy suits, full of affectation. My favourite was Rylan Wilkie, who’s quite hilarious pretending that he’s too cash-strapped to lend Timon anything. “Fla … minius?” he says, addressing the associate sent on Timon’s behalf, as if they’re only passing acquaintances.
Ben Carlson is perfectly cast as self-righteous Apemantus – who brings baggies filled with carrots to Timon’s dinner parties and pulls George Orwell’s 1984 out to read while others are enjoying themselves with sexy hired dancers.
I couldn’t always clock the kind, deluded man Ziegler plays in the first act with the world Ouimette constructs around him. His genteel Timon just didn’t seem like the sort of fellow who would entertain his friends with lap dances and EDM music, but more likely to bring out Rufus Wainwright and a string quartet. (Ouimette has reworked a production he first created at Stratford in 2004 with the late Peter Donaldson in the title role.)
But Ziegler’s performance synchs up with the show in the second half, when Timon goes to live in a cave outside of Athens – and then basically yells at everyone to get off his lawn for the rest of the play. He’s like a ludicrous Lear – finding buried treasure while digging for roots and then angrily throwing cash and rocks at passersby. Ouimette finds the perfect tragicomic tone for these scenes and Ziegler is both ridiculous and pitiable, looking like he’s wandered out of a Samuel Beckett play, howling in a hole in his undershirt or picking up an umbrella to shelter him from the blistering sun that hovers over the action in Dana Osborne’s design.
There’s a subplot involving a military man named Alcibiades (Tim Campbell) who turns on Athens’s leaders after one of his friends is sentenced to death (perhaps with cause). Campbell’s such a likeable actor, you can’t help but get on his side and cheer his and Timon’s desire to destroy Athens because of its flawed leadership.
“The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends,” Apemantus says of Timon – and it could equally apply to Alcibiades, who swerves from politeness to violence. Indeed, this rarely produced Shakespearean oddity feels entirely in keeping with our own age of extremes.
Timon of Athens continues until Sept. 22 (stratfordfestival.ca).Report Typo/Error