- Timon of Athens
In the age of director's theatre, Timon of Athens, Shakespeare's misanthropic problem child co-authored with Thomas Middleton, has enjoyed an unlikely popularity. Its apparent incompleteness, its troublesome mid-play shift in tone and genre, its sketchy martial sub-plot, its anti-hero who isn't quite a full-fledged tragic character and isn't quite an allegory—all have licensed inventive directors to mess with Shakespeare without the opprobrium of tampering with a classic and beloved text. During an announcement earlier in the year about this final production in the Actors' Shakespeare Project's 2009-2010 season, a house manager joked, "Don't worry, I've never seen it either."
This production of Timon, which routinely sold out despite its obscurity, represents a coming-of-age for the Actors' Shakespeare Project and for Bill Barclay, who started as an actor and musical composer for the company and has now emerged as an energetic and talented director. Barclay brought a muscularly comic vision to this brutally dark play, staged, like many of ASP's best productions, in the subterranean black box theatre at Midway Studios. But he also demonstrated unusual intelligence about his office, with a strong sense of how prior stagings of Timon inevitably [End Page 567] haunt subsequent productions. Barclay's Timon had moments of blistering originality while also taking landmark productions of the play (and even renderings in other media) as a pattern book that can, maybe even must, be sampled in performance.
The first half of the play, roughly comprising the first three acts and the first scene of the fourth, was located in front of a giant modernist mural. Timon opens with two clownish parasites, a Poet and a Painter, comparing the artworks they will present to wealthy nobleman Timon to milk him for cash. This play's mural, a Post-Impressionist foreshadowing of the play's central conceit of "Fortune in her shift and change of mood / Spurn[ing] down her late beloved," transposed the Poet's verbal offering to Timon to the Painter's visual medium while allowing the Poet to keep his lines as a commentator. The massive image kept the play's defining emblem front and center. It also recalled Wyndham Lewis's 1912 Cubo-Futurist illustrations for Timon, which depicted a sharp-edged anthropoid hemmed in by leering faces, disjointed bodies and a network of criss-crossing lines and shapes. And the towering mural also seemed to refer to Peter Brook's epochal staging of Timon at the Bouffes du Nord in 1974, probably the most influential post-war production of the play, which placed the actors in front of a crumbling wall eleven meters high. As in Brook's production, the mise-en-scene in Barclay's production both dwarfed the players and thrust them forward by decreasing the depth of an already shallow stage, lit at intervals by ghoulish fluorescent bulbs.
Directing with quotation marks did not preclude originality. Barclay stated in his director's notes that "Timon is the economy" through his rapid descent from boom to bust and his accompanying emotional extremes. This production was likewise concerned with the economic volatility of the patron-artist relationship. The default get-up for the minor roles (artists, debt collectors, thieves—though the play and the performance blurs those functions) was a sort of artist's jumpsuit, daubed with color splotches. Elements of the set were constructed out of visible theatre lighting, plastic sheeting used by house painters to cover furniture, and metal ladders used...