Theatre: Go easy on the hatred

Timon of Athens RST, Stratford
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The Independent Culture
Shakespeare's plays have elliptical orbits. After years of neglect, Troilus and Cressida has suddenly moved into alignment with millennial sensibilities. Macbeth, conversely, seems a distant, bloody, rather ludicrous thing - and recent productions starring Rufus Sewell and Alan Howard have reinforced the view.

Timon of Athens, however, has yet to find any obvious moment of proximity. There's no evidence that it was performed in Shakespeare's lifetime, and with no comic subplot or love interest, it is hardly a crowd-pleaser. You can imagine Henslowe giving it a late-night studio slot at the Globe, on condition that Will knocks out another cross- dressing Britcom for the main house.

So before you get the verdict on Gregory Doran's RSC revival of the play, the plot probably requires a quick review. It's the story of an Athenian noble who lavishes expensive presents upon a pack of fair-weather friends, and then discovers that they won't sub him once the cash has run out. He retires to the desert, digs himself a tomb, and dies in it.

It's the most linear and single-minded of all Shakespeare's plays - just one sharp, sour movement from opulence to poverty to death. Timon moves from a stance of indiscriminate love for all humanity, to an equally indiscriminate hatred, and then opts out of it, of his own volition.

For the first half of Doran's production, Michael Pennington plays Timon like a man dozing in a bathtub of leeches. He's sleepily aware that his friends are eating him alive, but chooses to ignore the fact because he's grown to love the nip of their little jaws. He dares himself to rash acts of beneficence - not because he's generous to a fault, but because he craves his peers' sycophantic displays of thanks. He glows with that same expression of shifty beatitude that you sometimes see on the face of the Queen Mother. An expression that says, "Isn't this fun? Isn't this desperate? And how long can I get away with it?"

Once Timon has taken his misanthropic turn, however, Pennington comes slightly unstuck. He over-employs that old Antony Sher trick of propelling a big speech upwards by using a rising cadence at the end of each line of verse. Fine when you're doing demagogues and over-reachers such as Arturo Ui or Tamburlaine, but, really, inappropriate for a character whose strategy is withdrawal and retreat.

The text of Timon is a fractured and compromised work, and Doran has felt free to depart from it at several points. He cuts, very sensibly I think, a scene involving a strange comic turn from a Fool, a false start begging excision.

Less wisely, he deviates from the text by having the tomb discovered by Timon's faithful servant Flavius (a stately John Woodvine) not, as Shakespeare directs, an Athenian footsoldier who hasn't appeared before. This allows Woodvine to boom out Timon's epitaph, but it also necessitates the removal of the soldier's graveside speech. With that gone, Doran is forced to play the scene in dumb show. Woodvine pops on to the stage, picks up Timon's carved epitaph like a parcel at a poste restante, and tootles off again. Odd way to respond to the death of your beloved employer, I'd have thought.

A similar problem occurs in a scene where the Athenian captain Alcibiades (a bright-eyed Rupert Penry-Jones) pleads with a trio of senators for the life of a condemned, and nameless, friend. Doran has shown us the friend at Timon's house party having his sexual advances spurned by a cross-dressed dancing boy, and then pursuing the boy into the night, dagger in hand. This action is Doran's interpolation, and it makes nonsense of Alcibiades's claim that his sentenced friend, "with a noble fury and fair spirit/ Seeing his reputation touched to death/ ... did oppose his foe". Murdering someone for refusing to have sex with you is hardly a crime of honour. It undermines Alcibiades's veracity, upon which the conclusion of the play depends.

Timon is a neglected work, largely, I think, because it refuses to provide any of the normal satisfactions of Jacobean drama. It tricks you into think- ing you're watching a moral fable, and then refuses to yield any clear lesson. It is also the most Beckett-like of Shakespeare's plays. It strands its protagonist in the wasteland for Act V, where little happens but his being pestered by a series of unwelcome visitors. "The strain of man's bred out/ Into baboon and monkey," reflects Apemantus, the play's requisite malcontent (a salty performance by Richard McCabe), which isn't so far from Estragon's "People are bloody ignorant apes".

It's also hard not to think of Samuel Beckett when Timon makes his farewell to the world. "Lips, let four words go by, and language end." If Beckett still speaks to us, so too does Timon.

'Timon of Athens': Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford (01789 295623) to 9 October