Friday, 28 September 2012

Timon of Athens: National Theatre London

22nd September 2012

This was an audio described (AD) performance of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.  This play is a bit of a rarity and some estimates have been made that the input of Thomas Middleton accounts for as much as 30% of the play. 

Having joined an access list at the National Theatre, I received an audio CD in the post with an introduction to the performance, play, set and cast lists.  Production notes are also made and on this occasion there was a specific remark by Karl Marx which fits in well in relation to this production. 


On the day of the performance I went to the touch tour of the set with an informal walk around the set as well and a chance to discuss the production with the stage management and some of the cast.  There is also a very attractive exhibition of Timon of Athens in the foyer and I listened to one of the videos which discussed Jacobean plays, tragedy, city comedies and the politics of King James I/VI.  King James was known as the “Wisest Fool in Christendom” and with the saying “A Fool and his Money are easily parted” the background to the play can be set.  While the programme quotes from Marx there is an additional Marxism – Gold sein oder Gold Schein?

We gathered at the Olivier Box Office which has a backdrop of the Milennium Wheel and the Thames.  Nick welcomed us with a team of staff.  Reuben remembered me from Detroit and I was introduced to Rosalyn. The staff see the run of a play develop and can often give useful tips on other productions at the National Theatre. 
On the set itself we were introduced to the company by Andrew Holland one of the describers with Bridget Crowley.  When the actors are introduced to us they are invited to use both their normal voice and the role voice.    We then enjoyed an additional treat; the stage revolved with us on it.  I have walked the set before on the Olivier and my cane has run along the circular track of the movement mechanism. I questioned how fast it went in rpm (betraying my vinyl records days) and after our revolution I was told by Kerry McDevitt, the stage manager, that it took about 30 seconds from a standing start to do half a revolution. 

On the set there is a descending wall with 2 doors and a centre piece which was  used as a mini stage for a ballet piece, a projection of a painting in the Timon Room of the National Gallery and a view of the City of London from an investment bank- it happened to be a shot of HSBC according to my companion.      Knowing how the theatre and set worked it was time to view the set props and I was taken round by Ciaran McMenamin, who has the part of Alcibiades, a notorius troublemaker and rabble rouser from 5th Century Athens. 

Ciaran took me round the banqueting table and settings, some luxurious sofas and the trolley and trash piles with the occupy tents.  Ciaran had studied at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow so we discussed Glasgow and Edinburgh; as well as the role of Alcibiades, as he appears in Plato’s Symposium and in Thucydides’ Histories: a rabble rouser and turncoat from history, used by Shakespeare and then translated to the modern financial crisis in the banking and financial markets. 

At this stage we were joined by Bridget Crowley carrying a pair of ballet shoes.  As the dancers were going to be dancing on point, the wooden blocks could be felt.  I asked if the shoes had been made by Freed, as the Royal Ballet gets their shoes hand made.  We discussed audio description in ballet- a deep philosophical debate which will be continued. 

We were now ready to enjoy the performance of Timon of Athens.  The action could be followed, with some of the actors being recognised from the context, some from the script dialogue and others on the AD cue.

The play really gets interesting with the soliloquys of Timon, played by Simon Russell Beale.  The city comedy back chat was as topical as ever with returns on capital, usury, bonds and bankruptcy themes.  Outrageous consumption is familiar enough, though Timon does star when his anger shows and the banquet before the interval is a real shocker.  Having studied Trimalchio’s Dinner (Satyricon) by Petronius and recently read Mrs Mackenzie’s Dinner (Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope – Talking Book number 017243) I was quite unprepared for the shocker of Timon’s final banquet, where the solids do hit the air conditioning. 

The second half is where gold, greed and duplicity get a thorough going over.  The ending of the play is a weak point.  We know nothing about Timon apart from his “friends” and there is no family to frame him.  Timon writes his own epitaph (over the grave) and presumably dies offstage.  “Obscene” Alcibiades now joins the suits and the oligarchy continues.  Nothing changes. 


With audio description and a live performance there are really 2 live performances.  The describer has to anticipate what an actor will do while the actor both acts and reacts to an audience.  Warnings are made on the headset in advance of noisy passages on stage and I could not hear the AD as I was very close to a crowd scene.  The AD in the ballet scene was difficult for me to unravel.  I have difficulty in listening to the music, working out what is going on with the dance and then interpreting the description of the dance.   The touch tours greatly add to the enjoyment of the performance and I also found the Timon of Athens exhibition at the Olivier to be very informative.

The National Theatre will be broadcasting a performance of Timon of Athens live on 1st November to selected cinemas in the UK and abroad.  For more information go to:

Note: When at school, we studied Shakespeare using the Signet Classics paperbacks.  There is a 1965 edition of Timon of Athens which cost 3s 6d (three shillings and six pence or 3/6 for those who can remember!).