Tag Archives: Thomas Middleton

Timely in Athens

TIMON OF ATHENS

The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 2nd January, 2019

 

Simon Godwin’s new production of the rarely-presented ‘problem play’ is an accessible fable, due to some judicious cutting and reframing of scenes, and simple staging.  It’s a game of two halves: the first is all gold and opulence, as though Timon’s interior designer was King Midas – even the flower arrangement is gold – with the stage dominated by a long banqueting table around which Timon entertains her guests, lavishing gift upon gift upon them, as suits her whim; the second half is dirt and darkness, with Timon now living rough in the woods, spurning all comers and railing against the world, like a mini King Lear.

In the title role, the formidable Kathryn Hunter gives a compelling performance.  Her Lady Timon is a silent-movie diva, every expression writ large on her face, every gesture stylised and mannered – although she is far from silent.  She spouts some of Shakespeare’s most acidic, misanthropic lines with relish.  Hunter’s performance style sets her character apart from the others, as befits the action of the play.  She is supported by a strong ensemble who breathe life and credibility into shallow, one-note characters.  (The blame for any shortcomings in the text is usually laid at the door of Shakespeare’s collaborator, Thomas Middleton!)

Chief among the supporting roles is Patrick Drury’s Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward.  In one of the piece’s most touching scenes, he shares the contents of his purse with his fellow, newly-unemployed servants.  It is the servants who display the best aspects of humanity: Salman Akhtar’s Lucilius, Rosy McEwen’s Flaminia, and Riad Richie’s Servilius.

Lady Timon’s guests, moochers and hangers-on display the worst aspects, leaching away at the good lady’s generosity until the well runs dry.  We see through them at once. Ralph Davis’s poet and Sagar I M Arya’s painter, might be excused for seeking the patronage of a wealthy woman, but Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaner) and Sempronius (James Clyde) soon prove themselves to be fair-weather friends.  These moments, with Godwin cross-cutting between scenes of refusal, are handled with humour – there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, as we are invited to examine the scenario from a distance rather than empathise with the personas.

A dissonant voice comes from the mighty Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic philosopher, Apemantus, and not just because of the Welsh accent.  Gwynne and Hunter share the finest scene of the piece in which Apemantus and Timon trade eloquently vicious insults, descend into name-calling and end up displaying the play’s strongest instance of fellow-feeling.  It is powerful stuff.

With its up-to-date references (Alcibiades’s mob are sporting the latest Paris fashion, the ubiquitous yellow vest) and a strongly Grecian feel (Michael Bruce’s jaunty, stirring score), there are parallels being drawn with certain countries in the European Union, but I am tempted to consider the production is a more direct meditation on our own situation.  The first half is a Leaver’s vision of the EU, with all and sundry happy to bleed us (Timon) dry, while the second act is a Remainer’s nightmare of the UK post-Brexit: alone, hateful and bitter, scrabbling in the dirt for sustenance!

What I can’t help thinking is that Will must have had his father in mind during the writing of this play.  John Shakespeare spent his latter years as a recluse, hiding from his creditors; perhaps there is something of his nature in Timon’s bitter barbs.

An amusing, provocative production, rich with ideas and excellently presented, this is a timely Timon that reminds us that human nature is immutable and inequality is still very much with us.

Timon of Athens production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_269096

Lady Bountiful: Kathryn Hunter as Timon, with Patrick Drury as Flavius and Nia Gwynne as Apemantus (Photo: Simon Annand)

 

 

 

 

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Life in the Roar

THE ROARING GIRL

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 16th April, 2014

 

Shakespeare’s contemporaries Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton teamed up to write this comedy of deception, here brought to the stage by director Jo Davies who uproots the action to the late 19th century. This makes for a good-looking production designed by Naomi Watson with men in tails and curios in glass cabinets. And it makes sense – the cross-dressing, ‘roaring’ girl of the title brings to mind novelist George Sand and male impersonator Vesta Tilley – although on first appearance Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse reminds me of a Brosette. Why the music and songs (by Simon Baker and Gary Yershon) are so anachronistic, including electric guitars, is beyond me. If it’s meant to be an alienation device, it worked by yanking me out of the atmosphere of the play, but it didn’t work in terms of reminding me this is artifice and I should be intellectualising about the morality of the situation… All I thought was how the music doesn’t fit. I would have chosen snatches of music hall songs to cover transitions, but what do I know?

There is much to enjoy in the performances of the players. David Rintoul is superbly indignant as the scheming Sir Alexander, contrasted by the exuberant and fresh-faced scheming of son Sebastian (Joe Bannister). Christopher Middleton is suitably pompous as Neatfoot the butler, a walking thesaurus, and I particularly enjoyed Mr and Mrs Openwork (Tony Jayawardena and Harvey Virdi) as a pair of scheming tailors. Everyone is involved in scheming at some point, making for very shallow drama and characters for whom you don’t give a fig. Some scenes are very funny (double entendres in a tobacconist’s) but some of the action is fudged by the inconsistent quality of the staging. I’ve said it before, in venues like the Swan, you have to keep the cast moving so that everyone gets a chance to see their backs; don’t leave them downstage looking upstage, masking the action for a large section of the audience.

Lisa Dillon doesn’t so much roar as swagger. Her Moll is a posturing principal boy with painted-on stubble. You can imagine her as Peter Pan very easily. She shows a nice line in comic timing but you get the feeling the role isn’t much of a stretch for her.   She makes an apology in an epilogue for the thinness of the plot and the quality of the production – the playwrights’ last joke. But then the company regroup for an ill-advised bout of street-dancing that is just embarrassing.

I wanted to like The Roaring Girl more than I did. I guess I’ve been spoiled by recent exposure to the superior work of Spanish contemporary Lope de Vega.

Lisa Dillon

Lisa Dillon


Double-dealing and Double Meanings

A MAD WORLD MY MASTERS

The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 20th June, 2013

My first impression of this doctored version of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean comedy, here updated to Soho in the 1950s, was that it is very similar to West End hit, One Man Two Guvnors, in terms of period and knockabout feel.  I suppose what it really demonstrates is the unchanging nature of comic archetypes.

The language has been not-so-much updated as interfered with (in a knowing, oo-er Mrs kind of way) with modern-day interjections thrust into the play’s convoluted passages. Almost every line is a sexual metaphor of some kind.  I didn’t know where to put myself.The cast handle whatever comes their way with relish.

It’s at first a celebration of human flaws and foibles, as certain characters set out to take advantage of others in a variety of means. Dick Follywit (Richard Goulding) can’t wait to inherit his uncle’s fortune and so he sets out to rob the old man by dint of disguise and confidence trickery.  Goulding has something of a dynamic David Cameron about him (if you can imagine such a creature) – but don’t let that put you off. As his schemes unfold, it is with the old uncle that our sympathies lie. Ian Redford is marvellous as Sir Bounteous Peersucker, the victim of Follywit’s cons; he has peccadillos of his own, which make him ripe for exploiting. Scheming prostitute Truly Kidman (a superb Sarah Ridgeway) outdoes Follywit in the effectiveness of her deception.  She dresses as a nun in order to facilitate a sequestered wife’s liaisons with her lover.  That the wife is married to a Mr Littledick tells you all you need to know.  Her lover is one Penitent Brothel, a name that conjures up the duality of the character.  Played by the excellent John Hopkins, Brothel, having got what he wanted, repents of his lust and turns to self-flagellation instead, swapping one physical sensation for another.

There is much to admire in this strong company. Ishia Bennison delights as Truly Kidman’s mother and pimp; Richard Durden is a scream as “Spunky” the doddering old retainer whose hearing aids scream to herald his exits and entrances; Steffan Rhodri and Ellie Beaver as the Littledicks handle their broad comedy with aplomb, but my heart goes out to the hapless Constable (Dwane Walcott) perhaps the only innocent in the whole piece.

The production is riddled with contemporary music, some tunes more familiar than others. The cast have a go (Mrs Littledick’s Cry Me A River is poignant and apposite, Follywit’s number is less palatable – imagine the Bullingdon Boys doing Elvis) but most of the vocal stylings come from the sultry and soulful Linda John-Pierre.  I could happily have listened to her all night.

Director Sean Foley masters his mad world with total assurance.  The tampering with the text makes Middleton more accessible, demonstrating there is life in the old plots yet.  The play is still about what it was always about: the eternal folly of man. The moral seems to be we should enjoy others being made fools of while we can – we never know when it’s our turn.

In the last act, there is a play-within-a-play (a ruse to mask a robbery) and Sir Bounteous remarks that the ‘actors’ “have made faces at us, laughing at ourselves.”

There’s a double meaning in that.

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Penitent Brothel (John Hopkins) enjoys a Littledick (Ellie Beaver)