YorkShakes Review 2015: Timon of Athens

One of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, reviews York Shakespeare Project’s Timon of Athens

Image: York Theatre Royal

Image: York Theatre Royal

Venue: The De Grey Rooms Ballroom

Timon of Athens is one of the less well-known of Shakespeare’s plays, so watching a performance is a unique experience in the sense that the audience will probably not already know the plot from cultural osmosis or studying it at school. There is no waiting around expectantly for the famous lines like there would be when watching Hamlet, for instance. It tells the story of Timon, a wealthy Athenian, who transforms from an affluent, contented figure into a poor, resentful one. The play has an ambiguous background, as scholars generally believe that its current form is unfinished, not appearing as well-written and sophisticated as other Shakespearean works. A widely-accepted theory is that it was probably a collaboration between Shakespeare and another playwright, possibly Thomas Middleton. Because of this unique history, I was very curious to see what the play would actually be like.

Unfortunately, when the play first began, things did not seem promising. The first scene, between a Poet, Painter and Jeweller was rather overacted, and the attempts at humour were more awkward than amusing. A slightly clumsy dance sequence, which represented a party, also felt slightly unnatural. However, the performance quickly improved, with particular praise going to John Hoyland as Timon, who portrayed both beneficence and bitterness very convincingly. Lucy Simpson as Flavius was also very effective, her skilful acting making it easy to empathise with her character. The fantastic location of the De Grey Rooms Ballroom was a very fitting choice, as the splendour emphasised Timon’s wealth and the excesses of Ancient Greek society. The sets were also impressive; they were simple but effective at conveying an impression of the environment.

However, my main problem with the performance was created by the fact that many male characters were played by women. This in itself would not be an issue, as the original play is very male-dominated, and a more balanced cast is probably more appealing to a modern audience. Nevertheless, despite these positive intentions, confusion arose as characters played by women were often referred to as both ‘she’ and ‘sir’ in the same sentence, leading to uncertainty as to which character was being discussed and whether or not they were actually meant to be female.  It would have been a lot less jolting if all characters had been referred to by the original pronouns in the text – no matter the gender of the actor – rather than a combination of accurate and inaccurate terms.

Fans of Shakespeare will find it very interesting to see this play, especially as an opportunity to watch a performance of it is very infrequent. The acting from most of the main parts was very convincing, while the plot as a whole seems relevant to present day struggles about money (despite its Ancient Greek setting). The play has quite a slow pace and the ensemble had a slightly amateurish feel to it, though the overall performance was enjoyable.  It would certainly not be the best introduction to Shakespeare for someone who did not already appreciate his work, but I am very pleased that I had the opportunity to watch a play that is rarely seen on the stage.

One comment

  1. “Timon” is a great play, modern in structure and philosophically practically Buddhist. (“Nothing brings me all things.”) Read what G. Wilson Knight had to say about it. The language is more apocalyptic than “Lear,” and contains much of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry. As an actor who has played Timon twice, and looks forward to playing him again, I can only say that this play demonstrates just how far Shakespeare is still ahead of the curve, and how far we have to go to catch up with him.

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