Theatre: Timon of Athens, National Theatre

Shakespeare’s muse on money rings true in 21st century

Timon of Athens National Theatre South Bank 4 stars

Timon Of Athens is rarely performed but Nicholas Hytner has picked the perfect moment for its revival. This is, after all, a play about money. More specifically, it is about a hideously rich chap named Timon who gives away all his dosh and finds himself without friends, when his coffers are bare.

It’s one of Shakespeare’s trickiest plays but, in this sparkling modern-dress production, every line glistens with relevance. When Timon bitterly refers to money as that “visible god” that “speaks with every tongue and to every purpose”, the audience flinches in recognition.

It’s as if Hytner has sprinkled his production with contemporary fairy dust. We open in a grand gallery, where a new wing has just been opened in Timon’s name. Around Timon, the chattering classes – including painters, poets and anyone with a plum accent – swarm about like particularly well-dressed locusts.

When Timon goes bankrupt, his staff leave with their boxed-up belongings – it could be the collapse of Lehman Brothers. When Timon’s PA (Deborah Findlay) goes in search of cash, it is a Canary Wharf banker who smugly informs her: “This is no time for a loan.” The rebels who later hound Timon could have been plucked straight from the Occupy movement.

Simon Russell Beale is careful not to be too, well, Shakespearean. His Timon is a rather pathetic soul early on, as he gratefully laps up his friends’ false flattery. When they call his name, he scampers after them like an eager puppy.

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Once Timon has fled the city he grows visibly smaller, as he skulks and scratches himself in the shadows. He might look like a nutter, with his trolley of trash, but Beale’s sensitive performance never turns savage. When Timon delivers his final tirade against mankind, Beale stumbles sadly over the phrase “pangs of love”. This might be Shakespeare’s most famous misanthrope but Beale reminds us that Timon was killed not by hatred – but by too much love.