Timon of Athens gives you too much time to look at the shoes

Playing Timon of Athens, Colleen Wheeler rages against duplicity.

Colleen Wheeler goes full throttle as Timon of Athens, but director Meg Roe’s take undercuts her efforts. (Photo by Tim Matheson)

As a script, Timon of Athens has problems. Director Meg Roe’s production for Bard on the Beach doesn’t help it out.

There are good reasons why Timon doesn’t enjoy a lot of productions. The play, which Shakespeare probably co-wrote with Thomas Middleton, features a wealthy Athenian who showers his friends with more gifts—jewels and horses—than he can afford. When Timon inevitably goes bankrupt, those supposed friends turn their backs on him. The script is repetitive and obvious: it’s clear from the get-go that Timon is a spendthrift and he’ll pay for it. And Timon gains virtually no insight—he plummets directly from naiveté to embittered rage—so there’s little sense of thematic accumulation or satisfaction.

Still, Timon of Athens can be moving—as it was in director James Fagan Tait’s production for Bard in 2007. In Timon’s worldview, material support is the currency of intimacy. In an early party scene, Timon says to his guests: “Why, I have often wished myself poorer that I might come nearer to you. We are born to do benefits. And what better or properer can we call our own than the riches of our friends?” The guy is fucked up. He mistakes money for love. If a production allows us to see this vulnerability, the play’s heart opens and it becomes an affecting tragedy.

Under Meg Roe’s direction, that doesn’t happen.

Although the characters as written are mostly male, Roe makes virtually all of them women—more about that in a moment. It’s the tone of the world that Roe creates that’s key. As Timon and her entourage party, Timon is a confident, self-satisfied show-off and the sycophants who surround her are so obviously two-faced and greedy that there’s no way to believe Timon’s supposed friendships with them are authentic. So, for me at least, there’s no buy-in to Timon’s frailty or to the world that she is desperate to maintain.

And, without that empathy, the script goes flat: it’s just a story about a narcissistic idiot who becomes a bitter idiot.

Roe’s production is full of directorial conceits, but few of them are revealing.

In a set-up that goes on too long, the characters meet, mingle, and mumble. We get snatches of dialogue amid the party hubbub, but we have to wait several long, unproductive minutes before the exchanges and relationships start to come into focus.

Roe has set Timon in the present and technology becomes a factor. A character named Isidore, who wants to call in a debt from Timon, carries on a one-sided conversation on her phone, for instance. Similarly, Timon texts a response to an annoying inquiry. I’m all for the modernization of Shakespearean texts but in this production, the conventions surrounding technology simply add another layer of useless alienation.

In the script, after Timon is betrayed, he heads off into the wilderness and lives in a cave. As Roe and set designer Drew Facey reimagine the story, Timon tears her house apart and descends into an earthen hole beneath it. This choice is as innovative as all hell but, to me, it feels arch and showy—an overly deliberate idea. Colleen Wheeler, who’s playing Timon, is an actor of formidable emotional resources, but even she can’t rescue this passage and it goes on forever.

Thanks to Roe’s decision to people the play with women rather than men, we do get some strong work in unusual places. Moya O’Connell’s passionate portrait of Timon’s faithful steward Flavius, is the most affecting characterization of the evening. And Marci T. House delivers an admirably restrained characterization of the cynical philosopher Apemantus.

Quelemia Sparrow’s take on a noblewoman named Ventidius is…interesting. Sparrow plays Ventidius as a money-grubbing airhead—and she’s got the physicality and comic timing to back that choice up. Her Ventidius is a bimbotic, calculating perpetual-motion machine. This is funny as far as it goes but, but it’s also tied into Roe’s unfortunate decision to make Timon’s friendships obviously false.

Costuming is the level on which this production succeeds most consistently. Designer Mara Gottler makes gorgeous and revealing choices—a sleek black-white-and-silver outfit for Timon in her prime, for instance, and cheap earrings and knee-high suede boots for the social-climbing Isidore.

Then there are the shoes. Good lord! The shoes! When I got bored, I spent my time going, “Are those Louboutins? Are those Manolo Blahniks?”

Watching a more compelling production, I would have spent less time marvelling at the footwear.

TIMON OF ATHENS by William Shakespeare. Directed by Meg Roe. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Howard Family Stage in the Douglas Campbell Theatre on Tuesday, July 10. Continues in rep until September 9. 

Tickets.

NEVER MISS A REVIEW: To get links to my reviews plus the best of international theatre coverage, sign up for FRESH SHEET, my free weekly e-newsletter.

And, if you want to keep independent criticism alive in Vancouver, check out my Patreon page. Newspapers are dying and arts journalism is often the first thing they cut. Fight back!

About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

Leave a Reply