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The view from Southbank

Embarrassingly, last year I went to London only once. I intend to make it up this year. On Wednesday, I took my first excursion to the National to see Simon Russell Beale in Nicholas Hytner’s production of Timon of Athens. The primary plot of Shakespeare and Middleton’s play – of a wealthy man whose estate collapses due to his unrestrained generosity, and turns feral misanthrope after being abandoned by his friends – was effortlessly adapted to a satire of present day London. The first scene, in which a painter and a poet discuss the works they’ve produced in Timon’s honour, is set in an art gallery which Timon’s bounty – and name – had just embellished. (The ancient woman next to me told her friend that the large painting was Goya’s Christ chasing the moneylenders out of the temple). The employment of a revolving stage coyly referred to the wheel of fortune which is set against Timon (in an early scene he walks against the direction of the revolution to the next scene) as well as a convenient and elegant prop device, wheeling in a banquet table or a hip lounge or a banker’s desk with the swift suggestion of cameras showing the seasons change. The second half, showing Timon in his fallen state, altered Shakespeare’s forest to an industrial wasteland near docks. Rather than becoming a hermit, Timon is a bum in plaid and beanie, clutching a cart.

The secondary, Alcibiades plot was transformed and shaped in a way that would suit the new setting – a kind of violent hoodlum occupy wall street movement which had very little real objective and ended by being utterly absorbed into the way Athens/London operated. It emphasized the plays’ social commentary but was, we thought, the weakest aspect of the performance.

Apemantus, G and I agreed, had had his lines cut, which was unfortunate as Hilton McRae carried the philosopher’s glowering mangy glamour easily. Deborah Findlay as the feminized steward, Flavis, had an unfortunate tendency to moan rather than act.

But Beale is exquisite to watch. He carried off both extremes of Timon’s condition magnetically, though perhaps the quirkiness of his maddened poverty reminds me of his recent performance as Falstaff in BBC’s recent Henry IV 1 and 2. He declines from a well-presented man with a bit too much flair for extravagant shows of affection and, like Lear, an inability to know himself, to a little squat man, a snapping turtle, with consummate control over spasmodic gestures, hoarding his wheelie bin, manipulating and taunting his visitors with the gold he’s found and despises.

The play was followed by lasagne in Le Ballerina in Covent Garden, where all the other diners were either pensioners or French. We all quarrelled about the bust of a man bewigged in the 17th century fashion: is it a singer? Monteverdi? Scarlatti? The waitress said the owner changed his identity every night. Tell me if you find out who he is.

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