The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

You Never Give Me Your Money

Another BBC Shakespeare review from 2006...


TIMON OF ATHENS

Synopsis first this time, I think.

ACT I

Lord Timon throws a big party for all his Athenian chums. He showers them with lavish gifts and they shower him with praise. He buys overpriced nicknacks from poets and painters and gives them away as presents.

Apemantus, a miserable-bastard-about-town, mutters that this will probably all end in tears.

ACT II

Lord Timon's servant and accountant, Flavius, realises that the kitty is empty and there are Final Demands plapping on the doormat. He breaks the bad news to Lord Timon. Not a problem, says Lord Timon - I'll borrow money off my Athenian chums.

ACT III

When asked for a loan, all of Lord Timon's Athenian chums give an embarrassed cough, pat their pockets and make feeble excuses why they can't help out with the readies.

Not a problem, says Lord Timon, who is having a mental breakdown. I'm holding another big party, please come along. All his Athenian chums turn up, in the itchy-fingered avaricious expectation of more lavish party gifts.

Instead he serves them up a meal of stones in hot water and tells them they can all go and f*ck themselves. He wants nothing more to do with Athens and the people in it and storms off in an indignant fit of huff.

Out of loyalty, Flavius the accountant decides to go after his master.

Meanwhile, another Athenian Lord, Alcibiades, is also thrown out of the city as a result of a disagreement with the senate over something or other.

ACT IV

Lord Timon now lives in a cave on the beach, scavenging for roots and berries and generally behaving like a wild creature covered in dust. Whilst scavenging, he comes across what he thinks are gold coins. He curses them. Bad coins!

During the course of the evening, he's visited by:

1. Alcibiades - who is also really pissed off with Athens and raising an army against them. He asks for Lord Timon's help. Lord Timon tells him he can go and get stuffed.

2. A couple of disease-ridden whores. Lord Timon tells them to go and give the pox to the people of Athens.

3. Miserable-bastard-about-town Apemantus. Lord Timon tells him to sod off and bother someone else.

4. A couple of thieves. Lord Timon tells them to go and nick things off the people of Athens.

5. Flavius. Lord Timon is quite touched that his servant has come to see him. But then he tells him to f*ck off as well.

ACT V

The next day, and there are yet more visitors for Lord Timon in his cave on the beach.

1. The poet and the painter from Act I. They want to sell him poems and paintings. He wants them to bugger off.

2. Flavius and a couple of senators. Apparently during the night Alcibiades raised an army against Athens and they now want Lord Timon's help to defend the city. They beg his forgiveness for their previous behaviour. He tells them where they can stick their forgiveness, and says that the people of Athens can go hang.

After all these visitors, Lord Timon isn't feeling too well. He crawls into his cave, gives a loud groan, and dies.

Alcibiades arrives at Athens. The senators beg his forgiveness for their previous bad behaviour. Alcibiades announces that from now on Athens will be run as a co-op. Word arrives that Lord Timon is dead.

The End.

---

So not a complicated play then. Short and simple, a bit like me. There’s virtually nothing in it not to like, but as it is clearly an unfinished work, it would be unfair to judge it in any other terms. It's a first draft, a rough sketch, an outline, and for various reasons which I'll go into, I don't think it could have ever really amounted to anything more.

Why does it seem unfinished? Well, it's very short for a tragedy, to start with. There are virtually no subplots or complications - Alcibiades' rebellion is the nearest thing there is to a 'b' plot and that is hardly developed. There are elements that come out of nowhere, almost as afterthoughts - it isn't until Act IV that we are told that Lord Timon is a great soldier, for instance. The thread with Ventidius (one of Lord Timon's friends who he bails out of jail) seems to vanish without trace. The dialogue is bumpy - none of the usual distinction between the posh folk talking in verse and the plebs talking in prose. There are no comedy characters, no families, and there is no love interest.

Most conspicuous of all, though, is the characterisation. Or the lack of it. The only character with any personality to speak of is Lord Timon himself, and he is little more that a cipher. He believes one thing one hundred per cent, then he flips his mind and believes the opposite thing one hundred per cent and that's it. No intermediate stages, no stages of grey, no self-doubt. Two acts of him as a philanthropist in love with the people of Athens, two acts of him as a misanthrope with absolute contempt for the people of Athens.

It's this bipolar aspect of Lord Timon which makes him so unlikeable. He is not stupid exactly, but single-minded to the point of wilful blindness. Naive. Impressionable. But he doesn't listen to what other people are saying - he's deaf to everything but flattery in Act I, while in Act IV he is deaf to everything but his own invective. Even when he is being generous he has no redeeming features - he only gives gifts in exchange for praise, so it's all about him. And when people are no longer prepared to pander to his ego, he goes into a right old strop.

Is it vanity? Or is it insecurity? Is Lord Timon overcompensating for something? Why does he need to seek validation? How has he reached such a point in his life? All these questions and more are not answered in this play.

The play isn't really about that sort of thing, though. It's intended as a savage satire, and as such, it makes its point clearly, and repeatedly. Repeatedly, and clearly. Never has a moral been so emphatically reiterated. “He that loves to be flattered is worthy o'th'flatterer.” In other words, a friendship you have to buy isn't worth having.

Or, as at least three different Shakespeare guidebooks put it, in a desperate attempt to be hip and pithy, 'Money can't buy you love'. Which is hip and pithy, but not totally accurate, as one thing the play isn't about is love.

This play, you see, was written in collaboration with a chap called Thomas Middleton, a sort of 16th century version of Nev Fountain. Thomas Middleton would often cast a satirical eye over the week's news, and when he wasn't doing that he'd be taking a sideways look back at recent events, as can be found in his play 'Have I Got Michaelmas-Time For You'. He also had a pretty bleak, cruel and cynical sense of humour, as demonstrated in his Revenger's Tragedy and his black comedy A Chaste Maid In Cheapside (the title a deliberate obvious oxymoron).

Thomas Middleton had also done a bit of ghost-writing on Macbeth, and may even be the guy who edited it down, so he had previous form for Bard behaviour. So it's not impossible that the impetus for the play came from him. It's a not-really-veiled-at-all swipe at the dandified court of King James, where various courtiers would lavish expensive trifles upon the monarch in the hope of political advancement and royal patronage. It is clearly criticising the sort of people the King was associating with and endorsing, as well as the whole consumer culture of conspicuous profligacy. Which is not a million miles away from the credit card culture of today - buy now, pay later. MODERN RELEVANCE.

But because the play is so openly critical of the status quo it could never be staged. And I suspect that's one reason why work on it was abandoned - it was hitting a bit too close to home. The second reason why it was abandoned, I think, is because I think Willy Shake was having trouble with the source material. It doesn't 'have legs', as the expression goes. As it stands, the play is milking its point and stretching its premise very thinly indeed, and Shakespeare doesn't seem to have been inspired by the material in the way that he was in, say, Coriolanus. That provided a relatively rich seam of potential ideas to explore, whereas this seems pretty shallow.

The big question the play poses is whether Timon's downfall is his fault. Is it due to his own greed for affection or is he merely a victim of the system? There are, apparently, two readings of the play - Freud though it was all about the ego (surprise surprise) and Karl Marx thought it was all about the evils of capitalism (again, quelle surprise). Karl Marx was particularly keen on the speech about money being “the common whore of mankind”.

The argument between these two positions is explored in the play, in Act IV, between Apemantus and Timon. Apemantus acts as a sort of 'socialist conscience' during Act I, a sort of Roy Hattersley figure, always moaning and expecting the worst. He puts it to Timon that he has brought all his troubles on himself and has no-one else to blame. Timon responds by saying he was merely acting the same way as everyone else in a system that was inherently corrupt (and ultimately corrupting of good individuals), and that it’s unfair that he’s become a victim when he has not caused anyone any harm, and in fact society is to blame so aaah.

How can I put this more clearly? The crucial line in the play is, I think, where Timon asks 'Why want?' The question posed is, why do people want more than they need? Are people inherently greedy - or does society make them greedy? Karl Marx had this mad seductive notion that if everyone had their fair share then they wouldn't want to have more, but human nature and history indicate otherwise. Communism is based upon a rather romantic ideal that, given the opportunity, everyone will be nice to each other, whereas the reality is that everyone wants a bigger slice of pie. And another pie. And another pie after that. People are hardwired to be materialist, we all covet things that are shiny and new. And if someone else has to suffer, well, that's their problem.

So even for an unfinished play, there's a lot to like in here. Maybe it's Thomas Middleton's influence, or maybe it's just his writing, but the cynical portrayal of the fat, upper classes looking after number one is very funny, and painfully true - particularly their feeble excuses for not helping out poor destitute Timon. The analogy that he draws of the socialites of Athens is wonderfully scathing; all beasts penned in together, each one feasting on the next. The point is made clear that capitalism is ultimately about men preying upon each other. There's a great rant on this subject in Act IV, and a wonderful you-can-all-go-to-hell speech at the end of Act III. And the poet and the painter are lots of fun - oh-so-sensitive artists portrayed as pretentious, craven money-grabbing idiots, basically.

There's also a wonderful piece of comic writing at the end of Act IV, where the senators of Athens ask for Timon's help in defending the town. Timon tells them he knows a way of saving the people of Athens from being killed by Alcibiades. He strings it out for quite a while, wickedly building up their hopes of salvation...

TIMON: I have a tree, which grows here in my close, that mine own use invites me to cut down, and shortly must I fell it. Tell my friends, tell Athens, in the sequence of degree from high to low throughout, that whoso please to stop affliction, let him take his haste, come hither, ere my tree hath felt the axe.... and hang himself.

But the play does rather reiterate its points a little too much; many of the characters are merely mouthpieces for neatly-honed arguments and epigrams. And Acts IV and V are very, very repetitive, as an endless procession of characters visit Timon in his Hovel-On-Sea. The Alcibiades sub-plot also seems like a Junior Coriolanus. On the other hand, the starkness and minimalism of the play makes it feel very modern, very Sam Beckett (oh boy).

A couple of other thoughts. There's the world's first ever 'son of bitch' joke:

APEMANTUS: Thy mother's of my generation; what's she, if I be a dog?

and even some product placement

APEMANTUS: Serving of Becks and jutting-out of bums!

In Act IV Timon discovers some gold buried on the beach. I find this somewhat improbable, and I wonder whether he does actually find gold - or whether he has reached such a point of insanity that he has started seeing gold coins when in fact all he has is a pile of pebbles. If this is the case, it means the various visitors he has are playing along with him / taking the piss when they are 'accepting' his gold - but it also makes more sense of all the occasions where he gets rid of guests by throwing what he thinks are his gold coins at them. One for the scholars, I think.

Overall, though, even though it's an unfinished work, I enjoyed it. It doesn't compare well to most of the finished tragedies, but on its own terms, bearing in mind the various health warnings, it's well worth your time.

The BBC production is pretty good, too, except for a dance routine at the beginning which is a little too minipops. Jonathan Pryce gives a masterful Timon. And, oh my goodness me - who's that? Yes, it's Donald Gee. And who's one of the whores in Act IV? Peroxide bombshell Diana Dors.

Famous quotes? 'We have seen better days'. 'Life's uncertain voyage'. Word coinage? Castigate, distasteful, droplet, shudder.

Next up: It's a biggy. It's the source of the names of two moons around Uranus and a statue at the BBC. It's inspired a classic science fiction movie, at least five Doctor Whos, two Star Treks, a West End musical, a novel by Aldous Huxley, Neil Gaiman's The Sandman, a JJ Abrams TV series and a song by The Human League...

1 comment:

  1. I've always wished that Hollywood had made an updated modern language Gangsters version of this with De Niro as Timon when he was in his imperious Goodfellas/Untouchables period or now if he remembered that he was an actor rather than a comedian of only for the moment when he reveals the emptiness of the second meal. Oh the shouting, the shouting.

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