5 August 2012

Timon of Athens - William Shakespeare

The Divine Power of Money

The Thames, The City and Blackfriars Bridge

Sunday afternoon.  The National Theatre. Matinee performance within the cavernous Olivier Theatre on the South Bank.  Packed out, with standing places behind me, despite the decent weather outside and the Olympics all around.  In fact, as a delicate irony, my neighbours exchange news in the interval that Murray has just beaten Federer: ironic because this "good" news of individual success neatly comes as Timon falls from supremacy.  Not that there is any other connection.....

The play, in short, is about a munificent and popular man of great wealth, and charm, who rashly ignores advice that his empire is about to fall.  Then, after the crash, he seeks help from former "friends" and "associates" and is denied.  In revenge he abuses them with a symbolic gesture of a cruelly negative dinner party and then disappears.

After the interval he reappears as a derelict inhabiting a nightmare world of incomplete capitalism or abused ruralism.  By an incomprehensible stroke of fortune (?) he finds there is gold beneath his feet, which in this production is under a manhole cover.  Are we invited to think of Our Mutual Friend where great wealth is derived from sewerage?  Or is there some subliminal link with Tony Soprano and his "Waste Disposal" business (or even the world of the 'Ndrangheta in Gomorrah?)  At any rate the gold serves Timon only to (further) corrupt the mob, and to generate violence against his own person from three fortune seekers who could have arrived from the world of Chaucer's The Pardoners' Tale.

Denying his erstwhile friends the capital to save their empire, Timon retreats into obscurity and we hear later that he has died, having prehumously erected his own epitaph.  The play ends with the leader of the rioters being instated as CEO of whatever organisation we imagine this parable to parallel.

It's a powerful tale.  Appropriate for our times and very neatly tailored and suited to recent episodes within our banking world - whether you are with Barclays, Natwest, Standard Chartered or hold bonds for Spain, Italy or Greece.  It is also handsomely staged - the first half within and without the shining halls of the City of London, the second half in the underbelly of such a city, as if under the buildings themselves, or where corporate development lays its foundations (the Olympic Village, for example).  Nicholas Hytner has directed with confidence and clarity and with Designer Tim Hatley has used the revolving stage and huge height of the Olivier to impressive effect.  Simon Russell Beale holds the stage with the cheek and suavity he has shown throughout his career (and even had as a young school boy at Clifton when, if I'm not mistaken, I taught him as simply Simon Beale) though his angst and confusion in the second half was more Falstaff than Lear, perhaps (and he cannot have been living off roots for long)?

Ultimately, there are no solutions; the story does not end, though the play shudders to a halt with a series of strobe lit freeze frames, as if the new protagonists are caught in the flashlights of the media.  Then it is over.  Beale beams; the cast bows.  The lights go up.  Murray has gold!

I wander out onto the balcony overlooking the timeless Thames.  The city divided by a stream of life and history that pre- and post- dates us all.  I step down onto the embankment and head East, towards St Paul's, symbol of defiant Christian principles, and towards 30 St Mary Axe, symbol of the City.  And towards Blackfriars to take the train home.....

Then, as I approach the bridge, an image comes to mind:  Roberto Calvi, swinging limply in the shadows of 1982. Chairman of the Banco Ambrosiano, known as "God's Banker" because of his links with the Vatican and Cardinal Paul Marcinkus (who reputedly had ties with the Mafia as well as the P2 Masonic Lodge) Roberto Calvi would have fitted well into a Jacobean tragedy, to include the death of his associate Michele Sindona by poisoned coffee whilst in jail (in 1986).  Although the connections with Timon are tenuous, the Wheel of Fortune turned for them both, from the elite echelons of the temporal world to the abyss of personal failure and despair.  As Timon disappears from the stage,

Then, Timon, presently prepare thy grave;

Lie where the light foam of the sea may beat
Thy grave-stone daily: make thine epitaph, 
That death in me at others’ lives may laugh

so Calvi disappeared from his flat in Rome, to reappear, nine days later in June 1982, hanging above the tidal Thames, leaving his bank $1.4 billion in debt.  Timon's death is reported, but as an open verdict.  Calvi is at first declared a suicide, a suicide who had thousands of pounds in cash in his pockets as well as masonic rubble to weigh him down, and who:

hath made his everlasting mansion 
Upon the beached verge of the salt flood; 
Who once a day with his embossed froth 
The turbulent surge shall cover.

The epitaph, which Timon composed for himself, could well stand for them both, and also, perhaps, for some of those today who have allowed Karl Marx's, "divine power of money" to become, "the general distorting power both against the individual and against the bonds of society....."

Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft:
Seek not my name: a plague consume you wicked caitiffs left!
Here lie I, [Timon]; who, alive, all living men did hate: 
Pass by, and curse thy fill; but pass and stay not here thy gait

I walk under Blackfriars Bridge, as everyone does, and go my own way home. But the play, and this sombre memory of events some thirty years ago, leave my mind unsettled. We are none of us without impurities; Timon's last words in Act V Scene (i) give us food for thought:

Lips, let sour words go by and language end:
What is amiss plague and infection mend! 
Graves only be men’s works and death their gain! 

Sun, hide thy beams! Timon hath done his reign. [Exit.

Or, more optimistically, as Kent says in "King Lear:"

Fortune, good night. Smile once more. Turn thy wheel. (sleeps)

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