It was back to Bard on the Beach last night, this time to see the all-female, modern-dress production of Timon of Athens, directed by Meg Roe. Timon is not often performed, and for good reason. It is resolutely dark. It is unevenly written (likely as a result of it having been co-authored by Thomas Middleton, which would also explain the darkness). And it has a thoroughly improbable plot.
Timon, played here with towering intensity and singular vision by the great Colleen Wheeler, is generous in spreading her wealth to an admiring group of friends, who fawn over and flatter her in order to keep the gifts coming. We meet this group in the opening scene, when they arrive at Timon's well-appointed home, which set designer Drew Facey has conceived as a beautiful and sleek modernist jewel. One by one, we meet Lucius (Michelle Fisk), Sempronius (an imperious Patti Allan), and Ventidius (Quelemia Sparrow, doing her best Real Housewives of West Vancouver impression), all kitted out in expensive couture (the amazing costumes are by Mara Gottler). This trio mixes with Timon's servants, PAs Flavius (an excellent Moya O'Connell) and Flaminius (Ming Hudson) and the silent male help (Joel D. Montgrand and Sebastian Archibald, the cops from Lysistrata), and the other guests, including a poet (Jennifer Lines) and painter (Kate Besworth), a late-to-arrive Isidore (Adele Noronha) and Timon's one honest friend, Apemantus (Marci T. House, delivering an unblinkingly truthful performance). With Wheeler's Timon sweeping in on her five-inch heels to bestow and receive air kisses, Roe plays the beginning of this opening scene as an overlapping hubbub of voices, knowing that it doesn't matter what of these characters' empty words we actually hear. Everything in this world is about appearances.
Which is why, when Timon eventually learns from Flavius, who had been trying to warn her, that she is bankrupt and is facing a posse of creditors demanding payment, she attempts to save face by dispatching Flavius and Flaminius to her friends to ask for a loan. Lucius, Ventidius, and Sempronius each spurn her request and in her rage Timon plans a final vengeful dinner party, the occasion here for a succession of coups-de-théâtre. First there is the huge round suspended table that descends from its hiding place in the overhead lighting fixture, and that the help set with expert precision. Then there is the unplating of Timon's surprise main course: bowls of warm water and smoke, one of which she promptly throws in Sempronius' face. That moment elicited a collective gasp from the audience, but it's when Wheeler started tearing up the set, lifting up a succession of floor panels and pulling out the supporting wooden joists to reveal the bare earth underneath that full pandemonium broke out. In Shakespeare's play text, Timon retreats to a cave following the dinner, vowing to spurn society. It's a genius decision on Roe's part to stage this as Timon pulling apart the literal foundations of her world. And Wheeler goes at it with absolute gusto, her white pantsuit becoming stained with earth, and her soignée chignon turning into a riot of rogue curls and loose strands.
Of course this is also where the already bizarre plot of the play becomes truly incredible. For what should Timon discover in the earth underneath her house but a treasure trove of money and gold? By this point, however, Timon is past caring, and in her complete nihilism forswears both financial redemption and, it must be said, the ex machina device of a happy ending. This perhaps explains her final exchanges with Apemantus and Flavius, the former offering simple hard reality in place of pity, the latter just not wanting her boss to die alone. But that is just what Timon does, and unlike in most of Shakespeare's other tragedies there is no attempt to sum up the moral of the story.
That is perhaps why, as Roe suggests in her program notes, the play is such a powerful parable for our own uncertain times. Rapaciousness and falsity are in ascendence everywhere, it seems, and with greatly unequal social consequences. In this stripped-down, 90-minute assault of near unremitting cynicism Roe forces her audience to do two seemingly antithetical things: ask ourselves why we are enjoying watching someone else's misfortune; and challenge ourselves to find even a smidgen of hope amidst all this darkness.