First Night: Timon teams with a wealth of ideas

Timon of Athens RSC Stratford
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ALAN BATES' 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 is staged, we have probably been robbed of that pleasure for good. It is, after all, nearly two decades since the piece was staged in Stratford. 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, and while unjustified, 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. Its hero begins as an undiscriminating philanthropist, lavishing wealth and favours on his fellow citizens who fail to return the compliment when his extravagance bankrupts him. He promptly becomes an equally indiscriminate misanthrope, retreating to a reclusive existence and lonely death.

Imaginative 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 which makes a pointed parade of the trashy decadence of the fellowship Timon is funding.

The production has a ranging, eclectic look, but the hero's sponging flatterers are ostentatiously dressed 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 butch Amazons whoprovide the cabaret at Timon's party and the dangling Cupids who shoot streamers from their bows.

The excellence of Pennington's performance lies in the way he reveals the psychological continuities between the hero's apparently opposite manifestations: the convivial host in flowing gowns and the loin-clothed outsider snarling like a wild animal.

Even when acting the life and soul of the party or reducing himself to tears at the thought of togetherness, Pennington's Timon has the abstract air of a congenital loner who may actually be using philanthropy as a means of sending off real intimacy and emotional equality. When his "friends" let him down, there is something ecstatic about this.

A production that is bang on the money.

Paul Taylor