Timon of Athens by Teatro Praga at the Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal, 2019
Reviewed by Francesca Rayner
After years of non-performance in Portugal, Timon of Athens has been produced twice in the past few years; firstly in a production directed by Nuno Cardoso in 2018 and now in 2019 in a performance by Teatro Praga. This suggests that the play’s cynical take on personal relationships and exploration of dramatic shifts from wealth to poverty is finding an echo with contemporary practitioners and audiences. This is also the third Teatro Praga performance that has paired a Shakespeare play with music by Purcell. First came A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2010), then The Tempest (2013) and now Timon of Athens, where the Ludovice Ensemble, under the irrepressible direction of Fernando Miguel Jalôto, played music from Purcell’s 1674 semi-opera live. As in all their work with Shakespeare, Teatro Praga here retained situations, narratives and characters from the play in a contemporary rewriting by José Maria Vieira Mendes and members of the company. In this case, this also had the advantage of avoiding some of the stylistic differences of the Shakespeare/Middleton collaboration. Each of Praga’s performances has also examined the world of contemporary theatre, whether the audience, the performers or, as in this case, the cultural institutions that produce and legitimate theatrical practice. Praga’s satirical and sometimes dark reading of the play created a first half full of well-chosen jibes at the hypocrisy of the cultural sector followed by a very different second half illustrating the difficulties of getting away from it all when capitalist modes of production inform even attempts to escape its worst excesses.
The set for the performance (by Joana Sousa) combined faux classical white pillars and a faded backdrop of the Acropolis and Parthenon with an eclectic mixture of jarring contemporary materials framing the stage. The soloists sang in and around the pillars while the musicians played just below the front of the stage. Ingeniously, the first half of the performance began when the money had already run out and an angelic-looking Flavius (David Mesquita) attempted to keep the guests occupied so that they wouldn’t become aware of this change in Timon’s fortunes. In terms of the guests themselves, Praga are well-known for their non-normative casting, using performers who do not fit traditional models for body shape in the theatre and undercutting gender and sexual binaries. In a play that is notorious for its dismal roles for women, Praga’s rewriting brought them centre-stage in a series of diverse and intelligent performances. Apemantus (Patrícia da Silva) had an excellent line in devastating put-downs. The fierce Alcibiades (Claúdia Jardim) railed at the absence of war and appeared on the brink of physical violence when the canapés didn’t appear. The Jeweller (Joana Barrios) hustled the guests in a sparkling gold dress. Timandra (played by non-binary performer João Abreu) became a social butterfly seeking luxury wherever and with whoever might be most likely to bring it her way. Around them, the Poet and the Painter (Pedro Penim and Diogo Bento) were a pair of bitchy queens dissing each other’s work and the slow speech of the pedantic Senator (Marcello Urgeghe) belied the fact that he had nothing interesting to say. Each of these characterizations was clearly defined in a way that encouraged audiences to identify parallels and laugh at the humour of the play. Throughout the first part, Flavius stood in for the absent Timon and ran on and off stage organizing food and entertainment that never actually arrived, something of a dig at cultural mediators who keep smiling and promising without actually delivering the goods. He also controlled the singers who sang excerpts from Purcell such as “But ah! How much are our delights”, “Who can resist such mighty charms?” and “Come, let us agree” to replace the masque in the play. Having been fobbed off with beetroot juice instead of wine, the guests finally left only to be lured back by Flavius with promises of food and wine that turned out to be bottles of mineral water (a Portuguese joke around a famous brand of mineral water, Água das Pedras, literally “water of stones”). The guests left once again, stripping Timon’s residence of anything that was not nailed to the floor.
Despite the guests’ fulsome praise of Timon and his generosity in this first section, Timon himself did not appear until the second half. The advantage of keeping back the presentation of Timon was that it created suspense around the man that everyone was talking about. When the performer (André e. Teodósio) did eventually appear, dressed only in a pair of purple shorts and receiving medication and massages from Flavius, the contrast between the expectations generated in the first half and the reality of his physical presence was genuinely shocking. However, rather than creating a Timon who was a victim, the performance suggested that Timon had simply moved on to the next big thing, in this case, a concern with inner rather than outer riches. Replicating capitalism’s tendency to constantly reproduce the new, Timon had recognized that material wealth was giving way to experiential self-contemplation and a Foucauldian “care of the self” and had refashioned himself as a new minimalist. Like his previous incarnation as a patron, this new role was not without hubris and, with capitalism positing the solution to its contradictions in a getting away from it all from which it also profits, the move seemed to suggest there was no space outside capitalism from which to institute critique. Yet in the intense and focused physicality of his movements, Teodósio’s Timon made clear that the ability to anticipate cultural trends is also the prerogative of the contemporary artist, even if this ability to innovate is contained by the dictates of the cultural institutions.
In the second half, unlike the constantly railing character in the play, Timon remained almost silent and still, using a minimum of gestures and words. His meetings with the other characters were filmed in real time and projected onto a screen at the front of the stage by video artist André Godinho. In these encounters, a single line from the text (such as “Swear against objects” (4.3 122) or “Lips, let sour words go by, and language end” (5.2.105)) flashed onto the screen to introduce these encounters. They alternated with mantras which emphasized the interpenetration of the economic and the experiential (such as “I am prosperous”, for instance). Timon was visited by the Poet and Painter who pitched an excruciatingly bad artistic project to him while Timandra gave a long speech approving Timon’s new life which owed much to Gilles Lipovetsky and Elyette Roux’s work on the democratization and aestheticization of luxury. Her repetition of “What a luxury!” here after using the same expression in the very different circumstances of the first half, underlined this shift in the understanding of the term. The final visitor was the Senator, puffing on his electronic cigarette, who tried unsuccessfully to persuade Timon of his responsibility to return. Unwilling to do so, Timon apparently committed suicide, covering himself in a white cloth with the words “Nothing brings me all things” (5.2 73). An onstage drone carried news of his death to Athens. For his epitaph, one of the singers approached the dead Timon in a floating white wedding dress printed with the same words, reminding audiences of the viral dress designs of Viktor and Rolf and their use of such phrases to sell clothes. The bride sang Dido’s lament “Remember Me” from Dido and Aeneas, endowing the events with a profound and moving sense of tragicomedy. It was a fittingly ambiguous ending to the performance, as even Timon’s death was marketed as a cultural product for weeping onlookers. Yet this second section also illustrated the ability of the company to renew its own commitment to experimentation and to introduce performance strategies that moved forward their engagement with Shakespeare, complementing their trademark heightened performativity with more measured and pared-down forms of performance.
Timon of Athens has never been one of my favourite plays and Purcell’s semi-opera is often considered a minor work. This was the first performance of the work which has not only worked for me as a piece of theatre but also as a reflection on the play’s relevance to the contemporary context. The artistic skills of all performers involved, whether theatre performers, singers or musicians, gave the play shades of meaning I had not considered before. It did not suggest necessarily a re-evaluation of the play within the Shakespeare canon, but it did illustrate how it might form the basis of a stimulating intermedial performance.
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, vol.3: The Care of the Self, Newark: Vintage, 1998.
Gilles Lipovetsky and Elyette Roux, Le Luxe Éternel: De L’âge du Sacré au Temps des Marques, Paris: Gallimard, 2003.
William Shakespeare, Timon of Athens, edited by Anthony B. Dawson and Gretchen E. Minton, London: Bloomsbury Arden, 2017. First published 2008.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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