Timon of Athens, The Bremer Shakespeare Company

The Bremer Shakespeare Company’s production of Timon of Athens began with a fifteen minute pre-show in which the characters moved throughout the theatre; this opening emphasised an intense sense of ownership of the space, as well as a slightly edgy relationship with the audience – there was nothing cosy here. This bravura performance style was later reflected when Timon unexpectedly turned his infamous invective on the groundlings: ‘Burn down the Globe and replace it with a bank’, he railed against us, ‘after all, another bank is exactly what London needs!’ It was a startling moment in a production that both radically departed from Shakespeare, while retaining an essential fidelity to his themes and images.

The company’s use of staging to engage the audience was clearly demonstrated by the surprising use of a trampoline. From the moment it was revealed it became a liminal emotional space. Timon established his centrality by being the first to jump on it, leaping and spinning and setting up a convention of appeals for applause that created an emotional and visceral interaction with the audience. Timon’s guests drew him back on to the trampoline, from where Alcibiades was mocked, and where they hover while Timon decided whether to help Ventidius pay his debts – the turning point in Timon’s fortunes. When Timon decided to help Ventidius, both men jumped on the trampoline, suggesting it is a place of friendship and liberation.

The next scene, however, was disturbing, as Timon bounced alone while being hounded by creditors who hit him with their tailcoats. This time, there were no appeals to the audience for applause and the trampoline was roughly moved to the other side of the stage. There followed a quiet, intimate scene between Flaminius and Timon, sitting on the edge of the trampoline to discuss Timon’s precarious financial situation. The change in emotional temperature between these scenes showed the company moving from an aggressive, alienated emotional stance towards the audience to an emotionally empathetic one. Flaminius, then ran on the trampoline to indicate his visits to Timon’s acquaintances to ask for money – turning it into a symbolic conduit between Timon and his erstwhile friends. The first half ended with the trampoline being overturned by a frenzied Timon in a burst of wild energy, as he shifted from philanthropy to misanthropy.

Many of the biggest audience reactions were in response to the contemporary allusions; Timon’s problems with liquidity were not relegated to ancient history, but were highly contemporary, with his misanthropy and cynicism at the start of Act 4 targeted at bankers, bonuses, pensions and the stock exchange. The Euro-crisis, perhaps inevitably, also loomed large. When Timon extolled the virtue of friendship over money, refusing Ventidius’ offer to repay a loan, he remained close to Shakespeare. However, when he defiantly added ‘Let the Greek’s come now!’, the production directly played on the political frisson generated by watching contemporary Germans actors performing a work about a Greek financial crisis. Yet the performance also encouraged a broader historical perspective, not least in its pseudo-Weimar setting, invoking that other great German financial crisis of the 1920s.

The production was conceived in broadly epic terms, both through moments of gestus and alienation, but also in the very adaptation which re-focused the action on a core choice between art and commerce. Timon’s direct invitation to the audience to steal his new-found gold from the stage found a corollary in the Painter’s demand that the audience engaged in politics through art. No longer the hypocritical ‘counterfeiter’ of Shakespeare, the Painter instead doled out paper and pencils to the groundlings and sought a sense of social responsibility by proclaiming that ‘crisis can be the source of creativity’. Apemantus (played by a woman) also deployed this epic style when she taunted a despairing Timon by singing the Beatles song ‘Yesterday’ in English from the balcony. In this moment the actress appeared to lose control but watching the show on two occasions made it clear that the ‘corpsing’ was intentional. This effect was used to control the audience’s laughter – an example of a performer deliberately and skilfully alienating the audience both from empathy with Timon and wry laughter at the world – the true cynic’s position.

This moment remained emotionally uncomfortable, yet was also clearly one of the purest examples of audience engagement in the production. These moments felt closer to Brecht than to Shakespeare, yet Brecht himself was fascinated by Timon precisely because of its inherently epic nature, identifying in it, like Marx before him, a central critique of an economy based on usury and the commercialisation of all objects and relations.

One of the most striking features of the production was its use of language. Liberally translated by the director Sebastian Kautz, the play was in modern German prose (unlike the original which is 75% verse). The adaptation nevertheless delighted in games with register, switching from everyday to coarse language, from the biblical to the militaristic, from the poetic to the bureaucratic and banal – a rapid code switching that kept the German audience on its toes, and provided a great deal of humour. Much of the central imagery of the original was wittily preserved: cannibalism, fate, the ebb and flow of nature, and above all the relationship between gold and dirt, venereal disease and corruption.

Such images were presented performatively, with Timon vomiting and excreting gold, and, in the final scene, Alcibiades and the Senators gulping down freshly barbequed meat while Timon expired in the foreground (his flesh being metaphorically consumed). Yet this ending was also affecting: Timon lay curled up like the dying Christ, while Flaminius grieved above him, creating a stage picture reminiscent of the Pieta. A red butterfly wire puppet was brought out to flutter over Timon. The overturned trampoline rested on the stage behind them. Haunting violin, piano and harp music was used, providing a profoundly moving conclusion to this intelligent and witty production.

Jeannie Farr
Lecturer
Hackney College and Benedict Schofield, King’s College London