How many people in Brisbane have previously seen Timon of Athens?
How many theatre companies would tackle it?
Who would offer a production as a free gift to theatre lovers?
Very, very few
Only Bryan Nason
In 1991 Bryan and the Grin & Tonic group embarked on a project to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare’s plays in honour of the late Robert Arthur and his work in Queensland theatre in the exciting years of the 1970s and 80s. This is the twenty-fourth in the series and, it has to be admitted, we are already through many of the really juicy plays – but there are still plenty more to come. I am not privy to which play is planned to round off the enterprise eventually – perhaps King Lear or The Tempest ?
The group’s approach is not a conventional one – the performances are mainly rehearsed readings rather than full productions and there is no charge for admission, though a donation to cover the costs of the actors is appreciated. For me, however, the truly remarkable aspect of the project is that this is essentially theatre as a gift offered to fellow Shakespeare enthusiasts. Given the constraints of a reading, not all the performances are perfectly polished; but where else would one have the opportunity to see all of the plays in performance by trained actors committed to making clear the meaning of the text and speaking Shakespeare’s language well?
Many of the plays are familiar to audiences; some, like Timon of Athens, rarely receive attention, and in this case it is not hard to see why. A collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, the play is formulaic in its structure and uneven in its writing. Based on a reference in Plutarch and an earlier anonymous play acted at the Inns of Court, the play portrays Timon, a rich and generous supporter of friends and the Athenian Senate, who turns misanthropic when, his funds depleted, he is refused money by all who formerly sponged on him. The first half of the play depicts his genuine though unwise generosity; the second his disgust at the cupidity and corruption he now perceives as ineradicable in mankind.
The play is significant for a number of reasons, not least because I believe it shows us what the majority of lesser and often lost plays of this period must have been like. We like to believe that Elizabethan audiences feasted weekly on Great Drama, but much of what was on offer was coarse, run-of-the-mill comedy or dry rewrites of Latin stories. With its classical source, rhetorical style, lack of emphasis on psychological subtlety and overly schematic structure, Timon of Athens seems especially tailored to please the University wits of its time and only spasmodically reaches the level of intensity we associate with Shakespeare’s great and universal tragedies. Nevertheless, there is some biting satire and superbly vituperative speeches, and Timon’s descent into madness is ultimately moving. However Timon is no Lear, and the ingratitude of his sycophants in no way prompts in us the anguish that we feel at the unkindness of Lear’s humiliation at the hands of his monstrous daughters.
The play has some rewarding minor parts which were relished in this production by Paul Sherman as the cynic Apemantus, Andrew Blackman as Alcibiades the ill-used Athenian General, and John Watson as Flavius, Timon’s devoted steward. Alcibiades’ wonderfully argued plea for mercy for his condemned soldier’s life was given full value by Blackman, and Watson’s palpable concern for his master’s welfare made Flavius an affecting Kent-like figure. Paul Sherman achieved just the right tone for the acerbic Apemantus and provided a perfect foil for the trusting and ultimately disillusioned Timon.
The rest of the troupe (Matt Foley, Nadine Kelly, Scott Maidment and Cienda McNamara in particular) worked hard to keep the pace of the play moving and bring the two-dimensional cameo parts to life. However, the play is Timon’s; he is rarely off-stage and the part demands a courage and stamina that is daunting. Bryan Nason gave a bravura performance, memorising the long role and showing us Timon in all his affable vulnerability and later bitter loathing. The use of the outdoor setting made Timon’s metamorphosis from affluence into naked despair, seeking comfort only in nature, particularly effective and affecting.
Coincidentally, courage and stamina are two hallmarks of Bryan Nason’s long career in theatre. From his inspired work with the College Players in the ’60s, through all the innovation with small theatre groups in the ’70s and ’80s and the commitment to bringing Shakespeare to life for countless school kids across the state, he has remained focussed on serving local theatre and fostering Queensland talent. Presenting the full series of Shakespeare’s plays is yet another ambitious and draining challenge he has set himself, which he tackles with his characteristic energy and enthusiasm.
Twenty-four down, thirteen to come by my reckoning. Phew!!
If you love Shakespeare, watch out for the next one – Pericles on 1 and 2 July. Telephone 07 3862 1181 for details of future productions or to be put on their mailing list.
Directed by Bryan Nason
Friday 1 June, Saturday 2 June 7:30pm