Timon of Athens
out of ****
of Athens has been heralded as William Shakespeare’s
most cynical play, and it is also considered one of the most underwhelming.
There are a number of reasons for this, most due to the fact that
the play was probably tossed aside by Shakespeare, who must have
realized its rather droll nature, before it was completed. It
was only discovered later and published in a popular edition,
having never been performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Wikipedia
Online writes, “Scholars find much unfinished about
this play, including unexplained plot developments, characters
who appear unexplained and say little, and prose sections that
would have been put into verse in a polished version. The author
appears to have abandoned his play, perhaps tired of antique subjects
drawn from Plutarch [the Greek historian].”
someone who has spent a great deal of time reading and studying
the works of Shakespeare (hey, I’ve got to do something
to pass the time when I’m not watching movies), I find Timon
of Athens vastly inferior to his other, greater tragedies.
At best, its dialogue reaches the level of MacBeth or
Titus Andronicus, but it never comes close to realizing
the beautiful imagery or powerful characterizations of Hamlet
or King Lear. The problem might also lie in the plot.
This is not the poignant story of revenge motivated by a ghostly
presence or a complicated romance featuring “my only love
sprung from my only hate,” but rather is about a man who
finds himself so miserably poor that he is forced to live as a
hermit. He spends a lot of money to impress his friends, he goes
in debt, his “friends” turn their back on him, and
he ends up living (and dying) in the mud eating roots. Ho hum.
is quite a feat, then, that BBC television is able to make Timon
of Athens into the gripping drama that it is. The company
boldly adapted all of Shakespeare’s thirty-seven plays in
the early 1980s, complete and unabridged, and this was but one
of their series. Such a goal is complicated, and that they pull
it off deserves praise, even if the TV-movies are little more
than filmed play productions, complete with the use of just one
or two sets (shot from different angles to give them the appearance
of different locations), recycled costumes, and stodgy atmosphere.
the casts, they used members of the Shakespeare Company, many
of which were unknowns in the 1980s but are household names now.
It is possible therefore to view Anthony Hopkins, Hugh Quarshie,
Tony Jay, and others as your favorite Shakespearians characters,
and watching them today make the films play like “Before
They Were Stars” tributes. Their Timon is directed
by Jonathan Miller, a BBC regular, and it stars Jonathan Pryce
in the title role, who interprets the character as a naïve,
insecure young man so desperate to please his peers that he never
thinks to balance his checkbook until the debtors come knocking
at his door. That debt can reduce Timon to such agony that he
becomes a hermit and dies of despair makes the man seem superficial
and a little too fragile, but Pryce is able to give him the right
note of wide-eyed sincerity so that we don’t notice the
inconsistency until the film is over (personally, I just think
that the Bard go so wrapped up in the fact that this was a tragedy,
he simply got a little carried away with Timon, reducing him to
a cliché of his own past characters).
stage, of course, is a different medium than film. The stage emphasizes
acting first and foremost, an important element of cinema but
only one of several crucial factors to make an effective film.
Timon of Athens simply comes across as a filmed stage production,
and it is therefore a bit droll in some places. On one hand, that
whole scenes can be filmed in one take is remarkable. On the other
hand, a still camera doesn’t make for engrossing cinema.
That said, there are a few interesting cinematic touches that
Miller puts in. In the opening scene, Timon holds a grand feast
for all of his “friends,” and as they fill their plates,
we see that Timon never has the opportunity to eat himself. This
makes for a nice foreshadow of events, and it also effectively
sets up the other characters’ motivation to love Timon based
on his generosity—an act of kindness that they refuse to
replicate when he is later in need.
is the only really “cinematic” moment in the film—Miller
is more interested in allowing the camera to simply point at the
actors and let Shakespeare’s rich language speak for itself.
While I have noted that this occasionally makes for lackluster
cinema, it also creates some very powerful moments: Once Timon
realizes his friends’ treason, there is a second dinner
scene in the fourth act in which he tells them how he really feels,
and it is just as effective and poetic as anything Shakespeare
has ever written. It was nice to simply let the actors and the
words speak for themselves without any distracting gimmicks or
devices, and the “filmed stage production” atmosphere
works towards Miller’s advantage here.
cast is also as good as you’d expect. All are professional
Shakespearian actors, which means that they have the uncanny ability
of speaking the lines so that they are accessible to the modern
viewer but still retain their poetic poignancy. Besides Pryce,
I particularly enjoyed James Cossins, another delightful BBC regular,
as the slippery Lucullus, one of Timon’s “friends,”
who averts his eyes, mumbles his praises to Timon, and tries to
slip away before the opportunity can arrive for him to be asked
to pay his bill.
best compliment that I can pay BBC’s Timon of Athens
is that it treats a lesser-known Shakespeare play with the same
respect and reverence that BBC also treats Hamlet and the other
greater plays. As a result, we are able to see it for its strengths
instead of comparing it to Shakespeare’s more important
works. After all, it’s better to have second-rate Bard than
no Bard at all, and Timon is for the most part an effective
Jonathan Pryce: Timon of Athens
Norman Rodway: Apemantus
John Shrapnel: Alcibiades
James Cossins: Lucullus
Hugh Thomas: Lucius
John Welsh: Flavius
A film by the British Broadcasting
Corporation. Directed by Jonathan Miller. No M.P.A..A rating,
but fine for kids (though they’ll probably find it boring).
Running time: 120 minutes. Original broadcasting date: April 16,