Wealthy Philanthropist Goes Bust, Nora Flirts: U.K. Stage

'Timon of Athens'
Simon Russell Beale in "Timon of Athens" at the National Theatre in London. Timon loses all of his money, and ends up living on the rough streets of London. Photographer: Johan Persson/National Theater via Bloomberg

A man showers his banker friend with gifts. Later, he requests a loan from him. “This is no time to lend money,” says the shocked banker.

“Timon of Athens,” by Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, was written 400 years ago. It feels like it was penned now.

In a lavish production at the National Theatre in London, director Nicholas Hytner updates the action to contemporary London. Wealthy philanthropist Timon (Simon Russell Beale) gives extravagant banquets and entertainments. His many friends lap up his luxurious hospitality.

When Timon finds that his funds are exhausted he turns to his circle for help. Lucullus works in a sleek banking office with a view of the HSBC tower (sets by Tim Hatley). Politician Sempronia is in the Palace of Westminster. Ventidius is a young playboy in a trendy club. One by one they rebuff him.

Timon is reduced to living on the streets, wheeling his few possessions in a shopping cart. When he unexpectedly finds a stack of gold, he gives the money to the violent class-activist Alcibiades to wreak revenge against his fairweather friends. “Let not thy sword skip one,” says Timon.

Edgy Parable

As a parable of the cost to be paid for a society living beyond its means, it couldn’t be more timely. In making Alcibiades part of the “Occupy London” group of tent dwellers who recently camped on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Hytner also taps into a very contemporary fear about London’s stability. It feels edgy, energetic and real.

The director works wonders with the rarely performed play, which is an oddity in the Shakespeare canon. It’s a schematic piece, more concerned with a pattern of ideas than psychology, and there are some loose plot strands.

The director makes plenty of sensible cuts, changes the gender of several roles (Flavius becomes “Flavia,” Sempronius is “Sempronia” and so on), and keeps the action swift and clear.

In Beale, he’s blessed with a superb actor who makes Timon a complex and sympathetic figure. Timon loves to be surrounded by people, and yet shrinks and cringes when hugged. Beale makes it clear that Timon’s gifts are a way of maintaining the human contact he both craves and fears.

Pained Soul

Beale’s performance stops the production feeling like a parable about politicians’ greed and bankers’ corruption. The cynic Apemantus says to Timon, “The middle of humanity thou never knewest, but the extremity of both ends.” Beale’s acting, now vulnerable, now bitter, shows a soul in torment.

The rest of the large cast is excellent, especially Tom Robertson as the preening young trustafarian Ventidius, and Tim Hatley’s cool revolving sets are a visual feast. The current lending crisis has never looked so good. Rating: ****.

At the Young Vic, Carrie Cracknell’s production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” emphasizes the feminist aspects of the piece.

The play tells of Nora (Hattie Morahan), a loving wife and mother, who once forged a signature on a bond to save her husband’s life. The lender, who needs a favor, threatens to expose her.

Nora is shown constantly to be performing. She instantly changes her tone whenever her husband Torvald enters the room. She can turn on a flirtatious mode with the suddenness of a light switch when her admirer Doctor Rank visits.

Nervy Nora

Morahan does a terrific job as Nora. She’s nervy, on edge, now girlish, now serious. She pushes the final confrontation with her husband to powerful extremes. Dominic Rowan is great as Torvald, and makes the character’s limited emotional vocabulary sympathetic rather than alienating.

Some of the rest of the acting isn’t as nuanced, and sometimes Cracknell’s direction feels too insistent and monochrome, as if she doesn’t trust the audience to get the feminist angle and has to spell it out for us.

Designer Ian MacNeil creates a cramped late-19th-century apartment on a revolve, and Gabrielle Dalton’s stylized period costumes cleverly show just how corseted and constricted Nora’s life is. Rating: ***.

Director Daniel Slater creates a surprising and thoughtful production of Tchaikovsky’s “Yevgeny Onegin” at Opera Holland Park. The early scenes, in which cynical Onegin rejects the love of unworldly young Tatyana, are set just before the Russian revolution. It’s a nostalgic world of wealth, delicate muslin dresses and laboring peasants.

Years later, when Onegin meets and falls in love with Tatyana, everything has changed. She’s now the wife of a Soviet general. In such an oppressive society, Onegin’s final cry of despair feels even more bitter than usual.

Dark Sound

Alexander Polianichko’s conducting ranks among the best heard at Holland Park. He hews a dark, soulful, Slavic sound from the orchestra, and keeps the drama taut and energized.

If Mark Stone (Onegin) doesn’t have the most secure Russian accent, he has a warm, passionate sound to compensate, and tenor Peter Auty makes a superb heart-on-sleeve Lensky. The role of Tatyana usually requires a soprano with some heft to her voice and in this respect light-voiced Anna Leese is an odd casting choice. In other respects, her beautiful, even-toned sound is a pleasure. Rating: ***.

“Timon of Athens” is in repertory at the National Theatre through Nov. 1, and the final performance will be broadcast live in the U.K. and abroad. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000; “A Doll’s House” is at the Young Vic, http://www.youngvic.org or +44-20-7922-2922; “Yevgeny Onegin” is in repertory at Opera Holland Park, which is sponsored by Investec Wealth & Investment, http://www.operahollandpark.com or +44-300-999-1000.

What the Stars Mean:
****      Excellent
***       Good
**        Average
*         Poor
(No stars)Worthless

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Lewis Lapham on history.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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