The first thing you see is a row of tents, the encampment outside St Paul’s, a world apart from the next scene, where a suited fat cat is moving like an oil slick through his own art gallery (there’s an El Greco of Christ driving out the merchants in the temple): it’s opening night for the ‘Timon’ room and everyone wants a piece of him.
Simon Russell Beale (Timon)and Deborah Findlay (Flavia) in Timon of Athens at the National Theatre, Olivier Photo: Johan Persson
Nicholas Hytner’s self-critical Travelex £12 ticket production of Shakespeare’s loneliest play (though now generally thought to be a collaboration with Thomas Middleton) is a mordant city satire with a skyline including the HSBC building, creditors coming to dinner in Fashion Week and cabinet ministers mingling with artists and artisans.
When Russell Beale’s brilliant and uncompromising Timon calls in his favours, the world around him shrinks, and he serves them one last meal - their own excrement (instead of dull stones); and we next see him in a beanie and Oxfam clothes pushing a supermarket trolley piled high with plastic bags in a wilderness of concrete stubs.
The show is both outrageous and ecstatically obvious, Russell Beale making a duet with Hilton McRae’s cynical, great-coated philosopher Apemantus that is a direct premonition of Beckett and Ciaran McMenamin’s rebel leader Alcibiades mobilising the growling disaffection - with sponsors, bankers, politicians - on the streets.
Every production of this underrated play I’ve seen (apart from Trevor Nunn’s at the Young Vic with David Suchet) has been sucked into a vacuum. This one is insistently ‘now’ and even the sexual imbalance is righted, with the whores replaced by ballet dancers and Timon’s closest allies, his steward and his servant, played (very well) by ‘critical’ women, Deborah Findlay and Olivia Llewellyn. It’s a complete and compelling triumph, with a clear message for all sponsors. I’d love to be a fly on the wall at the next NT board meeting.