Stratford’s Timon of Athens probes a cankered heart

Reviewed by Jamie Portman

Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann.

STRATFORD, Ont. —  It’s 13 years since Stephen Ouimette took on the hazardous task of directing Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, a play that is a mess both structurally and psychologically.

But Ouimette’s production, which starred the late Peter Donaldson as the Athenian nobleman whose misplaced generosity destroys him and turns him into a raving lunatic, did exert a compelling power. It also, with its modern setting, was an indictment of big business and a ruthless board-room mentality ready to turn on its own kind when expedient.

Considering the economic convulsions that later broke out in 2008 and given the continuing fall-out from them, Timon Of Athens seems even more timely today.  Ouimette is once more at the helm of the production that arrived at the Tom Patterson Theatre last week, and again the play opens with a very contemporary collection of parasites, leeches and lounge lizards being entertained at dinner by Joseph Ziegler’s Timon, as blinkered and benign a booby as you’ll find anywhere in dramatic literature.

Ziegler is very good at bringing an innate quality of decency to a character. So we can initially buy into him as a man happy and secure in his particular universe. Impeccably attired by costume designer Dana Osborne in an expensively tailored suit complete with cream-coloured waistcoat and wing-collared shirt, Timon exudes a complacent certainty that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with his world.  But in fact he’s far too complacent and therefore dangerously susceptible to the fawning flattery of those who seek to benefit from his financial largesse and who are then prepared to dump him once he passes his best-before date.

So there’s also a foolish vanity lurking in Ziegler’s portrayal — a vanity dangerously susceptible to the blandishments of someone like the self-serving painter commissioned to do his portrait — a sycophant portrayed here with scarcely concealed disdain for his patron by an excellent Mike Nadajewski. As for the friends who have benefitted from Timon’s generosity only to turn their back on him when his own fortunes fail, we need look no further than the way in which, Lucullus, a figure of preening cruelty in Ryan Wilkie’s performance, rejects the fallen nobleman’s plea for help. And if that isn’t enough there’s the always dependable Robert King, all grinning hypocrisy as Lucius, a false friend with the soul of a thug.

Speculation has been going on for centuries about Timon’s true authorship. Did Shakespeare actually write it? Was a collaborator involved?  Did he do an early draft later revised by someone else.? The mystery persists, although a consensus now seems to be emerging that Shakespeare did in fact write it, but left it unfinished for some reason.

There is no denying the existence of scenes that work marvellously well. The evidence is present in this Stratford revival when Timon invites his false friends back to dinner and shows his contempt for them by serving them nothing but water. It’s also the scene in which Ziegler’s Timon reveals a mind starting to disintegrate — another high point of the evening.

But then comes the problem with the second part of the play, when Timon has been tripped of riches and position and is now seen grubbing for roots in the wilderness. This is when his language really boils over into a scalding torrent of invective against the human race. The late Brian Bedford, who also took on the role for Stratford many years ago, admitted at the time that he was thrown by the scabrous venereal imagery of speeches unlike anything else in the Shakespearean canon. Indeed, Bedford went to far as to wonder whether whether the playwright was suffering from some kind of syphilitic dementia when he wrote these scenes. And critic Kenneth Tynan once ventured the opinion that sitting through a performance of Timon was akin to attending a party in which the host suddenly collapsed raving drunk under the piano.

How does an actor play these scenes? Often he’ll go for broke and simply let the venom pour out in all its corrosive fury. But there’s  the sense in this production is that Ziegler is holding back, that he’s imposed a restraining leash on language that snarls out to be released. As was the case with Peter Donaldson’s performance in 2004. Ziegler seems too much in control of a character who has skidded out of control.

But the trade-off is the element of bleak black comedy that enters these scenes as Ziegler’s Timon —  bruised, bleeding, a mockery of his previous sartorial elegance with his grimy undershirt and bare feet — scuttles in and out of his hole in the ground, flings bits of buried treasure at his tormenters, spews out his hatred of humanity and trades curses with his sardonic buddy, Apemantus.

Perhaps an interpretation presenting the human condition as some sort of grotesque joke is not that out of whack in a culture that has given us Enron. But Stratford’s Timon of Athens, for all the raggedness of the text, also fulfills Samuel Johnson’s view of it as a cautionary tale: “The catastrophe affords a very powerful warning against that ostentatious liberality which scatters bounty, but confers no benefits, and buys flattery, but not friendship,” Dr. Sam wrote more than two centuries ago.

So, yes, this production contains much that seizes our interest.The play has its share of underwritten roles, but Ben Carlson is outstanding as the cynical Apemantus, and Michael Spencer-Davis brings sympathy and a desperate integrity to the role of Timon’s embattled steward, Flavius. But we can’t  really care about that clumsily attached sub-plot involving the exiled general Alcibiades, dutiful though Tim Campbell’s work in this role may be. It’s the cankered heart of the story that draws us in.

(Timon of Athens continues to Sept. 22. Further information at 1 800 567 1600 or stratfordfestival.ca)


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