Timon of Athens is Shakespeare’s least-performed play, and the reasons for its obscurity are clear enough. It’s an arguably awkward collaboration with another writer. It was never finished or performed in the Bard’s lifetime. And given the dark view of humanity it expresses, it can leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.
So why is it that the National Theatre of Great Britain’s critically acclaimed production, which will be shown in a high-definition simulcast on November 19 at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, is sold out for its entire run?
“It’s very timely,” said Hilton McRae, a veteran Scottish actor who plays one of the central roles. “Usually, my reaction to being associated with a ‘modernized’ production of Shakespeare is ‘Not on your nelly!’ But this works.”
Director Nicholas Hytner sets the play not in ancient Greece, but in modern-day England in the midst of the ongoing financial crisis. The first image the audience sees is an encampment of small tents — the sort used by the Occupy protestors worldwide. The title character and most of his circle are members of the despised financial elite.
Like so many of that breed, Timon has no idea that his world is about to collapse. We watch him shower money and favors to his purported friends — who, as McRae’s character Apemantus points out, are merely taking advantage of him. When he encounters a liquidity crisis and asks his chums for help, they turn their backs on Timon, leaving him cursing, Lear-like, about the evils of humanity.
Did we mention it’s a comedy? “I’m very distressed if I don’t get a laugh on most lines,” said McRae, who views a key scene between Timon and Apemantus as a precursor to the bleak humor of Samuel Beckett.
McRae admitted he was unfamiliar with the play before he was asked to join the cast, but he took the part immediately. “[Apemantus was] described by Shakespeare as a ‘churlish philosopher,’ which is perfect casting for me,” he said. “He’s the only guy who speaks the truth in the whole play, and because he speaks the truth, he’s disliked, which I increasingly find in my private life.”
Catch Timon of Athens on Monday, November 19, 7:30 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. For tickets and information, call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.