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DIRECTOR'S NOTES: Timon of Athens

Many questions surround William Shakespeare's Timon of Athens. When was it written?
Why is there no record of even a single performance of the play during Shakespeare's life time? Why is the traditional structure of act breaks discarded in favor of an episodic style?
Why are so many of the characters left unnamed, having only their title as an identifier (i.e. Lord 1, Steward, Senator 1, Dancer 2)? Then there are the deeper questions surrounding its titular character. Is Timon a victim, a hero or an anti-hero? Is he completely oblivious to the corruption that surrounds him? Is he culpable in the creation of the "forest of beasts" that Athens has become? How did he come by all his wealth? Is his transformation from utopic optimist to vitriol-spewing misanthropist real? If so, is it possible to believably perform that transformation? And one can't leave out the frequent scholarly debate: was some or all of it written by someone other than Shakespeare?

These questions (and numerous others found in the play) captivated me when I first picked it up in 2008. We were looking for a final project for our Summer Professional Training Program students to explore. Each year our students study, stage and perform an hour-long cutting of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works. We had already tackled Henry VI part 1 and part 3 and The Winter's Tale and it seemed "time for Timon." The financial crisis that the country was beginning to face at the time certainly enhanced its relevance and resonance, but I ultimately selected the piece for the wonderful staging challenges it posed.

To be quite frank, though I was intrigued on the first read, I was far from being what one would call a fan of the play. That quickly changed however, once I had a chance to explore the piece with a group of eager young actors. I was astounded how, in bringing the play to the stage, it took on a shimmering life for me. Questions about structure and extreme transformations were suddenly more easily addressed in the world of eccentric characters, garish wealth, crippling poverty, and friendship (both false and true) that I now saw tangibly before me. Athens was like a tarnished music box; a once lovely, though gaudy world of plenty and excess, dressed in mirrored sparkle and glitz, but held together by only smudges of glue and bits of wire. I was also compelled by the manner in which the play seemed to force the audience into the role of voyeurs, viewing the decadence and demise of its characters – almost as if one was watching a carnival side-show or dark vaudeville; titillating and entertaining, uncomfortable and sometimes distasteful, but impossible to turn away from.

Many see Timon simply as an allegory about the themes of excessiveness and greed. I think, upon closer examination, it speaks also to and far more deeply about the fragility of the human heart, earnestness, loyalty and the ability of one man to affect an entire society – for good or for bad. What should someone take away from this production? Is there a singular core message one must hear? Are we the flattering lords, the self-serving senators, the voracious debt-collectors, the noble friend, the wide-eyed cynic, the wronged hero, the raging misanthrope, or the ever-loyal servant? Look into the acid-cracked mirror of Athens and see what reflects back as you add these questions to the list one is faced with when considering Timon of Athens. To the question: 'Is this play relevant for our times?'; I will answer: 'Undeniably yes!'

 

"One machine can do the work of fifty ordinary men. No machine can do the work of one extraordinary man." - Elbert Hubbard