This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Timon of Athens, bremer shakespeare company, Dir. Sebastian Kautz, 1 June 2012 at The Globe, London
By Emily Oliver, Shakespeare Institute
“WARNING: THIS PRODUCTION CONTAINS MALE NUDITY.” The sign, greeting visitors on their way into the Globe, could only mean one thing: the Germans are in town. As it turns out, Germans not only populated the stage, but also the majority of the auditorium. Whether browsing in the shop, queuing for food and drink, or finding my seat, I was struck by how few people were speaking English around me. London’s expat community had turned out in force to see the bremer shakespeare company (bsc) present Timon of Athens.
The bsc are no strangers to the Globe. In fact, they were the first company ever to perform in the space, when it was still a building site in 1993. The Globe suits their production style well, since they seek a strong, direct relationship with their audience. Thus, Timon (Michael Meyer), dressed in a coat and tails, greeted us as guests to his feast, while his servant Flaminius (Erika Spalke) anxiously shuffled around the pit, making sure everyone had a programme.
One by one, Timon’s friends arrived, all dressed in identical white tie outfits with flip-flops, and smoking cigars. The costumes (designed by Ushi Leinhäuser) made them an odd, yet apt, mixture of modern day yuppies and 1920s industrialists. This became particularly clear at the start of the mock banquet, when Timon lined up his friends in a row and made them listen to seemingly endless repeats of the Comedian Harmonist’s “Ein Freund, ein guter Freund” . This hymn to friendship from the days of the Weimar Republic recalled the era of the worst economic crisis in modern history, which had sent Germany spiralling towards social and political disaster.
Despite the bleak subject matter, the bsc opted for a rapid, very funny treatment of the play. With only six actors playing thirteen characters (often in the same scene), the cast switched personalities and costumes at breakneck speed. Most of the characters were drawn with broad brush strokes, which accorded well with the satirical text, making Timon appear as the only sympathetic, three-dimensional person surrounded by caricatures. This was truly an ensemble production: no role was too small to deserve attention, there were no stars, and the entire cast played off each other with great energy.
Director Sebastian Kautz’s translation/adaptation presented an irreverent approach to the text: with few speeches left intact, most of the play was paraphrased, resulting in a very condensed version (two hours including interval). For instance, the succession of scenes in which Flaminius (here conflated with Flavius) asks Timon’s friends for money was rendered as a montage to Gloria Gaynor’s disco anthem “I Will Survive”: each character mimed a hobby (golf, pole dancing etc.) while their refusals played as voice-overs. Although scenes proceeded quickly, often blending into each other, the production struggled to build up tension and a dramatic arc. Occasionally, the pacing of individual scenes suffered, as gaps between different elements of the action were filled only by improvised, muffled dialogue between the actors.
The cast were at their strongest when reacting comically to their immediate surroundings (passing aeroplanes, crying children…) or engaging in banter with the audience. This reached a climax when Timon urged the audience to help themselves to his gold: one spectator responded so enthusiastically, it seemed as though he might launch himself off the first gallery (much to the dismay of the steward in charge). He was eventually contained by a flamboyantly gay Ventidius (Gunnar Haberland) announcing that he would use the gold to buy himself “that man there”.
Much of the production’s humour lay in improvised jokes. Thus, the biggest laugh of the night came in response to Timon’s angry comment about politicians who resign and still get paid – an unsubtle allusion to the last German president, who resigned over corruption claims earlier this year, yet still receives an annual pension of €200,000. Although the audience responded extremely well to this kind of intervention, it did make me wonder whether non-German-speaking spectators found the show equally entertaining (I would be particularly interested in responses to this in the comments section).
In addition to its comedy value, the production was striking for its strong visual metaphors relating to key issues in the play. Whilst addressing his friends, Timon bounced up and down on a large trampoline, providing an immediate and very engaging image of the ups and downs of his fortunes (click here http://globetoglobe.shakespearesglobe.com/plays/timon-athens/interview to listen to producer and company manager Renate Heitmann and actor Peter Lüchinger discussing the trampoline metaphor). After Timon’s descent into poverty and hunger, he repeatedly attempted to eat earth, causing him to be violently sick into a bucket. It was here that he made the discovery of gold (causing him to throw up yet again). The use of the bucket throughout the rest of the scene made it seem as though Timon was suddenly vomiting and defecating gold against his will, literalising both the irony of the situation and his disgust with man’s greed.
One unusual choice concerned the foregrounding of the Painter (Peter Lüchinger). In contrast to the money-grubbing textual original, here he was the only artist on stage, dressed in a transparent plastic coat, and creating an artwork for Timon by applying paint from huge tubes to a plastic sheet. He later performed a masked interpretive dance at Timon’s feast, leaving Timon entirely entranced by the performance. Although derided as pretentious by the other characters, the artist continued to make speeches about art’s transformative power and individual creativity as a way out of the crisis. This chimed with Timon’s repeated statement, “we are born to do benefits” (rendered in modern German as “we are born to do good”). At Timon’s death, Flaminius cradled his master’s head in his arms, and the butterfly, which had featured in the artist’s dance, returned to settle on his hand – a beautiful splash of colour in this bleak final tableau.
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