Theatre: A savage attack that's bang on the money

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Timon Of Athens RSC, Stratford

ALAN BATES'S chest infection has cheated us of the chance of seeing him perform the title role in Timon of Athens for the RSC. And given the infrequency with which this particular Shakespearean drama recurs in the theatrical repertoire, we've probably been robbed of that pleasure for good.

It is, after all, nearly two decades since the piece was last staged in Stratford and eight years since Trevor Nunn's transposition of the play to a "greed is good" Thatcherite London at the Young Vic.

Gregory Doran's remarkably witty and penetrating production ends that silence in high style and Michael Pennington, stepping in for Bates, seizes the role with a tearing emotional power. A savage attack on the dehumanising impact of money, Timon was Karl Marx's favourite play, but it's not altogether surprising that it's a rarity on stage.

Quite apart from the fact that the text is uncertain, the drama has an unfashionably schematic parable-like structure. It's hero begins as an undiscriminating philanthropist, lavishing wealth and favours on his fellow citizens who signally fail to return the compliment when he faces bankruptcy.

Somersaulting from one warped extreme to the other, he promptly becomes an equally indiscriminate misanthrope, retreating to a reclusive existence and lonely death by the seashore. Clever use of a suite Duke Ellington composed in response to the play helps establish the droll satiric tone in the first half of Doran's production. Performed live, the mockingly sleazy jazz underscores scenes where the social world funded by Timon is exposed in all its trashy decadence.

In a cartoony allusion to the extravagant debt-culture at court in Shakespeare's own day, Timon's sponging flatterers are here presented as exhibitionist Jacobean fashion-victims. Doran suggests a strong sexual ambivalence in this milieu.

Angels in America seems the last word in buttoned-up puritanism by comparison with the spangly ruched curtains and the masque of Amazons, performed by butch men in drag, which provides the cabaret at Timon's thrash.

The excellence of Pennington's performance lies in the way he shows you the psychological continuities between the hero's apparently discrepant manifestations: the open-handed host in flowing robes and the loin-clothed outsider snarling like a wild animal in Stephen Brimson Lewis's beautiful abstractly-evoked wilderness. Even when he is acting the sole of conviviality, the rousing heartiness of this Timon feels obscurely remote and narcissistic, the behaviour of one of nature's loners who may actually be using philanthropy as a means of fending off genuine intimacy and emotional equality.

So when his so-called friends let him down (their displays of hypocrisy and bad faith impishly staged in such me-culture resorts as the massage room of a health club), there is something almost ecstatic and paradoxically vindicated in the scalding blanket-hatred that erupts from him.

Our response to Timon's flawed idealism is complicated by contrasts that are skilfully handled here. There's the moving, pained and far from blind constancy of John Woodvine's loyal steward and the amusingly illustrated differences between Timon and Richard McCabe's splendidly sardonic Apemantus, a cynic who visits the hero's retreat equipped with a tripper's sun cream and straw hat.

Unlikely the hero, he could never take more than an away-day break from the city he so prides himself on despising. Like most of the production's other ideas, bang on the money.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of Tuesday's paper