Contemporary analogies and a strong cast can save below-par Shakespeare like Timon of Athens
What to do with Shakespeare when he is not quite on prime form? It’s like watching Usain Bolt run on an off-day: impressive but you can’t help wish it was one of his better ones. As it happens, two such dramas are on the London stage at once. At the National’s Olivier, Simon Russell Beale breathes new life into the portentous riches-to-rags saga Timon of Athens. Probably co-authored by Thomas Middleton, it is really two halves unevenly stuck together. Will dominates in the first half, when Timon is a lordly but insecure figure, buying a crowd of fairweather friends. The second half bears many more traces of Middleton’s Jacobean appetite for revenge, as the benefactor fallen from grace embarks on an odyssey of misanthropic score-settling.
Director Nicholas Hytner has gone full-throttle for contemporary echoes in this story of lavish wealth undermined by greed and folly. Simon Russell Beale is one of the few actors who could hope to pull off the transition. A greasy, bipolar type, Timon first foists hospitality on his friends, then misanthropically berates them when, inevitably, they let him down. Alas, it is hard to identify with a figure who so wantonly gives away everything and then wonders why no one is around to bail him out of self-inflicted bankruptcy.
Parallels are underlined. The National adores a banking crisis, and this time it is HSBC’s turn to be the focus of mockery, with one of its vaulting towers projected over the action. Hardly subtle, but the credit crunch analogy breathes new life into an otherwise creaky morality tale.
Given the threadbare logic of the action, the cast have to work hard to keep us involved and by and large they do, with deft touches like a louche pas de deux (choreographed by Edward Watson). The young poets and painters who cream gifts from Timon end up as the sort of fidgety pleasure-seeker you might find at Boujis on a bad night. Small parts shone brightly here, with Deborah Findlay a loyal steward reminding us that there is always goodness and loyalty to be found, even when amorality is rife.
Truly, it would not be a play de nos jours without the Occupy movement, who loom larger in significance in the minds of today’s theatre directors than they do to most of the population. Here the hooded masses are recast as Athenian street protesters. The useful thing about malcontent mobs is that they really don’t change that much.
The Taming of the Shrew suffers from some of the same disadvantages as Timon — a plot with so much extraneous intrigue, clothes swapping and needless exposition that Shakespeare surely wrote it with a hangover. Added to which, its treatment of relationships between the sexes was regressive even in the 1590s. This may be the play that launched a thousand feminist literary theory seminars, but it can be extremely dull. I went to the Globe expecting little from Kate and Petruchio and was duly confounded to discover that Toby Frow has done a very good job indeed.
The key to this galloping production is the recognition that its best qualities are slapstick. Samantha Spiro comes from a stand-up comedy background. She has the muscular heft and the broad comedy skills to be a full-on shrew; her sister is rendered here as the truly nastier piece of work, all simpering passive-aggression, and the sisters’ fights are terrifying battles indeed. None of this would suffice if Simon Paisley Day had not turned the uneven role of Petruchio into a tour de force. Lanky, angular and a sight for sore eyes when he arrives to wed Kate in a maroon thong (ladies, you will not need to bring opera glasses), he carries this production with the gauche assurance of a latter-day John Cleese, ably abetted by the Baldric-esque sidekick Grumio (Pearce Quigley), who keeps the belly laughs coming as a disruptive foil.
Paisley Day’s quirks and charm make it easier to see why Kate is prepared to turn from feisty woman to pliant bride. Her final speech is delivered with a nudge and a wink, but also the recognition that some submission is at the heart of all marital happiness, so that “soft, weak and smooth” sorts or not, we’d better get on with enjoying it.
A strong dose of Shakespeare does leave one pining for a blast of the disordered modern world. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at the Cottesloe promised respite after my children said they could not face another play likely to feature the words, “Fie thee, Sir.” Mark Haddon’s blessedly contemporary novel about a boy with Asperger’s syndrome seeking to make sense of his fractured family is a brilliantly-written exploration, not only of mental disability, but the peculiarities of ordinary life we take for granted, from the diction of policemen to avoidance strategies of crowds in Tube stations.
All of this is strange and disturbing to Christopher (Luke Treadaway), a maths prodigy who lives in a state of confusion about human emotions. He sets out to solve a suburban mystery involving the next-door neighbour’s dog and a pitchfork. Naturally, Christopher is on to something and the plot unravels as his hapless father (Paul Ritter) seeks to keep the truth about his mother’s infidelity and absence from the boy. Nicola Walker, who plays Ruth in the BBC’s Spooks, is an overwrought mum who talks in the debased psychobabble of midmarket magazines, “I just couldn’t handle it” and “It’s pushing me over the edge” being her default proclamations. Marianne Elliott’s production is a bit gloopy at times and Niamh Cusack as Christopher’s perpetually saintly teacher can grate. But Haddon’s clear eye for the lives of what Ed Miliband would call the “squeezed middle”, under pressure from a child’s disability and their own emotional woes, redeems most of that. At 2 hours 40 minutes, however, The Curious Incident is way too long. Is there an Equity clause stipulating that most plays must come out at around this length? Shakespeare could take us through the entire human condition in that time — and even he needs a bit of a shearing on occasion.