BWW Review: Stratford Festival's TIMON OF ATHENS is a Powerful Cautionary Tale
TIMON OF ATHENS opened at Stratford Festival's Tom Patterson Theatre on Friday night. It is probably one of the more relatable cautionary tales that Shakespeare has produced, which explains why the Festival continues to have it set in modern times. Director, Stephen Ouimette takes this production on for a second time, as he also directed it in Stratford in 2004. I did not have the opportunity to see his previous production, but this one is impressive.
Joseph Ziegler is Timon, a rich Athenian who does not spare any expense when a throwing party, and is quick to offer friends and acquaintances financial assistance whenever needed, under whatsoever circumstances they come to him with...And come to him, they do, because they are well aware of his penchant for generosity. Only Apemantus, played by Ben Carlson, seems to see the ulterior motives and fakeness behind the praise and flattery of those receiving Timon's funds. His suspicions are proven correct when it turns out that Timon is in a great deal of debt and he turns to those same so-called 'friends' for assistance. He and his staff are met with avoidance and excuses and this leads Timon into a self-imposed exile and a complete change in outlook on the world, and the people in it.
Ouimette's direction and Dana Osborne's Design allow for a stirring production as the audience witnesses Timon at the height of his apparent fortune and then his eventual fall from grace. In the first half of the play, we see Timon and his guests enjoying themselves in a luxurious club. As Cupid (Ijeoma Emesowum) and three dancers (Mikaela Davies, Jessica B. Hill, and Zara Jestadt) enter and perform a 'masque of the five senses', the club comes alive. What comes next is a choreographed dance routine performed by most of the company. It is fun and engaging and certainly sets a mood for the life that Timon has been living up to this point. It perhaps continues for a little too long, but it is certainly a spectacle to be seen. There are many moments throughout the play that grab your attention in this way, albeit usually more subtly. Modern technology is also ever present-Many members of the company walk around with tablets at one point the painter and the poet (played respectively by Mike Nadajewski and Josue Laboucane) take a selfie.
The choice to once again set this play in modern times, heightens the audience awareness of just how true to life some of the circumstances of this play are. This really happens to people. As Ziegler's Timon discovers that his entire worth would not even pay off half of his debts, I started considering taking the time to re-evaluate my own budget.
What is perhaps less relatable, is just how low Timon falls. The second half of the play opens with him living in a cave, isolated from all of humanity, dirty and blistered from the sun. This is where Ziegler shines most. His performance of a man in utter despair who has given up on humanity is captivating and heartbreaking. Also excellent is Ben Carlson as the cynical Apemantus, who forms a unique bond with Timon once Timon's worldview becomes more like his own. His costuming alone allows him to stand out. Unlike everyone else's sleek suits and colourful ties; he is dressed down in browns and khakis, seemingly caring less about appearances. This stark contrast immediately sets him apart from the others.
This play famously has few female roles. Ouimette has made some of the creditors and business people female, but the major roles remain male. Initially, I questioned why, if the decision was made for some characters to be women, why the choice would be made for this change to only happen with more minor characters. It became clear that there was method to this during the scene where Timon invites friends and creditors to his home after they have denied him financial assistance. As we see a group of men lining the table, this too, becomes a realistic image of society today, where the majority of people in the 1% remain rich, white men.
Michael Spencer-Davis gives a great performance as Timon's steward, Flavius-the one character who is truly kind and loyal to Timon. The character's fear of revealing to Timon the truth about his financial situation, and anguish in seeing the misanthropic loner that his employer has become, is so deeply felt.
Tim Campbell gives a compelling performance as Alcibiades, a soldier who like, Timon, loses faith in humanity after being exiled for trying to save a friend. Unlike Timon, his frustration with those around him is expressed outwardly as opposed to inward. He returns with the intention of killing those in power. The scene where his soldiers attack Athens is chilling, and we once again are struck with images that are all too familiar in our own world.
Overall, this thrilling production of TIMON OF ATHENS does a fine job of exploring human nature. It certainly presents a pessimistic view, but as the characters with social power contemplate what is next, as they stand among dead and injured Athenians that have become collateral damage in an unnecessary war, there still remains a modicum of hope that perhaps the better angels of their nature will prevail. This too, is incredibly relatable to the world today.
TIMON OF ATHENS continues in repertory until September 22nd.
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann