The National Theatre's modern production of Timon of Athens makes a powerful commentary on today's world.The focal point of the second half of this National Theatre production is one of those large concrete blocks from which reinforcing steel sprouts in a rusting thicket. It's an inspired design touch in a staging full of them: the abandoned construction site is a pungent symbol, a reminder that the collapse or abandonment of grandiose plans is this decade's version of decay.
Generally regarded as one of Shakespeare's obscure problem plays, Timon was written around the same time as King Lear and seems to rehearse many of the same ideas (in Flavius and Apemantus there are echoes of Kent and the Fool respectively).
It's a dark meditation on conspicuous consumption and what Timon's steward (here regendered, and recast as a PA called Flavia) calls "the fierce wretchedness that glory brings".
It's also eerily, uncannily apt to our age - Timon is a man who says he is rich in friends but finds out that he has friends only because he's rich - and director Hytner foregrounds that: in the poster, Timon is having dinner with lookalikes of Madonna, David Beckham and Boris Johnson and in the first scene, his actors walk through an anti-globalisation tent city to take their places in an expensive soiree in an art gallery.
Beale, who has been one of the mainstays of NT productions (Collaborators; London Assurance) brings to vibrant life a character for whom personal relations have become entirely monetised: extravagantly hospitable and outlandishly lavish with his gifts, he physically recoils from real human contact. But he is heedless of Flavia's warnings that his wealth is a house built on sand and when the creditors start circling, he finds out who his friends aren't.
The climax of the first half is a meal that outgrosses by a large margin the pie, made of her sons, that Titus Andronicus serves Tamora: Shakespeare prescribes stones and warm water but this adaptation ups the ante and introduces a second half that is a sustained howl of rage against human greed.
Timon is plainly a lesser work by the greatest of writers but this dazzling staging makes a powerful comment on the world we live in.
Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Hilton McRae, Deborah Findlay, Nick Sampson
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Running time: 180 mins
Verdict: Shakespeare makes a fable for our times