The most moving moment in "Timon of Athens" is at the very end when Brian Bedford, who plays the title role, takes his solo bow.
There is something both brave and quixotic about playing Timon, the hero of one of Shakespeare's most unsatisfying plays.
Written about the same time as "King Lear," it carried the misanthropy of that play to almost embarassing extremes.
"Lear" begins with an almost fairy tale-like scene in which the old king gives away his kingdom. "Timon" begins with attempted satire: a wealthy Athenian, he takes pleasure in giving his money away.
His generosity, like Lear's buys him no true friends. At a moment of financial weakness, all the beneficiaries of his kindness desert him. So he decides to forsake Athens and retire to a nearby desert, where he spends the entire latter half of the play ranting against humanity.
Timon's ranting is not as eloquent as Lear's. Considering that the play was written after most of the great tragedies, the verse seems unusually simpleminded. It is not even very musical.
Nor is his situation very dramatic. Unlike Lear, whose enemies give the play a ferocious, diabolical energy, Timon's enemies are merely types. They make his misanthropy seem all too easy. If mankind is this stupid, we should all be misanthropists. (One would like to think misanthropy was a sport for the discerning rather than simply a popular diversion.)
Thus there is something both noble and foolhardy about taking on a role that displays Shakespeare at his least impressive and is likely to leave the audience enervated and puzzled.
It is hard to imagine anyone playing this dispiriting role more sympathetically than Bedford. Throughout the second part, when it would be easy to be petulant or sour, Bedford never lets Timon appear diminished. The innocence that fired his enthusiasm in the early part of the play now gives his wounded expression a poignant quality. Bedford's liquid, resonant voice is essentially gentle, and so Timon's indictments of humanity, rather than being tiresome, angry tirades, have a soulful, melancholy quality.
Hence, at Bedford's final call I felt an unusual admiration for him - as I hope I would for some pianist who did a whole evening of Lizst obscurities, trying to make a case for the composer fully aware that the evidence was unusually weak. This is acting at its noblest.
Michael Langham has set the play in the recent past, which does not make it any more compelling. He first directed this play 30 years ago, when he prevailed on his friend Duke Ellington to compose incidental music. This music, infectious and jaunty, is entertaining but - except for a solemn anthem toward the very end - entirely inappropriate to the heavy-handed play.
Langham has assembled a solid cast, particularly John Franklyn-Robbins, Jack Ryland and Nicholas Kepros. Michael Cumpsty is suitably heroic as Timon's sole ally, Alcibiades.
Despite everyone's efforts, one leaves the theater feeling little more than "duty done."
Now - at last, some greedily anxious success-hunters would say - at the beginning of only its third season Tony Randall's National Actors Theater is giving Broadway what could fairly be called its first definitive production of a classic - Brian Bedford in Michael Langham's staging of Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens." It opened last night at the Lyceum Theater.
This "Timon" has power, beauty and authority, and will be a benchmark production for other stagings of the play. The first such, to my knowledge, since Ralph Richardson played Timon in London in the mid-Fifties.
Shakespeare only became our Shakespeare because he uniquely contains the total complexity of life. Even so, few of his heroes are more simplistically complex than that virtual monster of hyperbole, the pound-foolish, penny-desperate Timon.
At the beginning of Shakespeare's oddly direct play - it is at times like a "morality" in its dramatic chiaroscuro of blacks and whites - flatterers surround Timon with silky admiration.
Timon himself, a noble, foolish soul, bathes in their soapy regard, while still managing to exude an air of unself-conscious goodness. He gives to all, unstinting in everything except perception.
The wheel of fortune, edged on by Timon's inevitable fate, turns fool-circle, leaving Timon ruined - deserted by his parasitic friends, ranting like a minor Lear in some self-inflicted blizzard.
For now - excessive in despair as he was in good fortune - Timon has become the very model of misanthropy, railing against the world and its ways with a fury that echoes the extravagancies of his past benevolence. All or nothing - Timon is Shakespeare's only truly compulsive hero, which is why his play is sometimes miscategorized as "a comedy."
The veteran Langham - newly appointed artistic adviser to the National Actors Theater - has done two very smart things. First, noting the theme's appositeness to our materialistic society, he has, with a naughty ease and enormously helped by Douglas Stein's masterfully angled settings, updated it to the present.
Then, second, while putting the play squarely on the shoulders of his Timon, he has produced a fine supporting cast of sycophants and stalwarts, particularly John Franklyn-Robbins as the contentious cynic, Apemantus, Michael Cumpsty as the soldier-hero, Alcibiades, and Jack Ryland as Timon's loyal steward, Flavius.
Why Langham is so perfect for the National Actors Theater in this fledgling stage of development, is that for all his vast experience and skill, he is neither doctrinaire nor virtuoso. His career has been based on the art of the possible - making the very best of all his resources.
Here he depends on Bedford - and Bedford, North America's finest Shakespearean actor, goes about his business faultlessly. His line readings are extraordinary - always his first concern is text and meaning.
Then, working under, as it were, that transparent clarity, Bedford creates his characterization; here Timon, a monument to human folly, a golden god with feet of clumsy clay.
The role is full of poetry (it is this that makes the play incandescent with life) and this Bedford weaves into a music of the mind, exciting and lingering. Thus a great performance in an unusual play. And the kind of evening for which the National Actors Theater must exist.
In its first two years, under the directorship of Tony Randall, the National Actors Theater developed the unenviable reputation of a company that could turn gold into dross. According to most reviews, such dramatic masterworks as "The Crucible" and "The Seagull" seemed to shrivel into abject clunkiness. While its production of "Saint Joan" last season received muted critical approval, few people expected inspirational lightning to strike the Lyceum, where the troupe is now based, at least not for some time.
Given this gloomy background, the idea of the company's opening its third season with Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens" appeared, on the surface, pretty foolhardy. A maddeningly sketchy, fractured work with the formal stiffness of a medieval morality play, it is widely believed never to have been completed by its author, and its performance history is scant. In short, it is about as close as you come to dross in the Shakespearean canon.
One is all the happier, therefore, to report that the production has reversed the company's trend, spinning straw into moments of pure theatrical platinum. Directed with an almost cinematic fluidness by Michael Langham, whom Mr. Randall brought in as the institution's artistic adviser last year, this "Timon" combines historical scope with intense emotional intimacy. And in the title role, Brian Bedford delivers a landmark performance, finding a compelling continuity in Timon's extreme and abrupt metamorphosis of personality.
In honesty, one should point out that the endeavor was less of a gamble than it appeared. Mr. Langham has been experimenting with "Timon" since 1963, when he first directed the play to skeptical reviews at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. A 1991 Stratford production, starring Mr. Bedford, was more enthusiastically received. And it is now clear that both men have found ingenious ways to turn the play's ostensible drawbacks into assets.
Of the two, Mr. Bedford is the more victorious. Playing a man who changes literally overnight from a glad-handing altruist into a ranting, misanthropic hermit, he locates an essential compulsiveness and vulnerability that dictates both extremes. Mr. Langham, in setting the play in Depression-era Europe, has aimed for a specific sociological relevance that occasionally seems strained.
But with skillful re-alignment of the play's scenes and even occasional added dialogue to fill holes, he keeps what could be a static production moving at a graceful clip. So one easily forgives such crowd-pandering interpolations as a Josephine Baker-style dance sequence and a jarring, special-effects-glutted war scene.
Mr. Langham masterfully balances the play's sunny, surface-skimming first half and its dark, inwardly rooting conclusion. It is an organic-seeming process of inversion that is nicely underscored by Douglas Stein's contrasting settings of opulent modernist interiors and the sterile wilderness -- which recalls the landscape of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" -- in which Timon ends his life.
The plot of the tragedy is simple. Timon, a rich Athenian of profligate generosity, quickly runs through his fortune only to find that the friends to whom he had lent money have disowned him. He retreats in solitude to the woods outside the city, cursing the world that has spurned him and earnestly awaiting death. In the meantime, an insurrection led by a disgruntled military captain rages in Athens and the gilded society that Timon once led teeters on the brink of dissolution.
In portraying that society in the play's first half, Mr. Langham -- abetted by a solid corps of supporting actors -- deftly creates a world with the depth of a fingerbowl. With Duke Ellington's suave, melancholy-tinged score (which was commissioned for the 1963 Stratford production) playing seductively in the background, the rich Athenians swarm through Timon's home like figures from the pages of an old Tatler magazine.
In their midst, Mr. Bedford's Timon is a touchingly incongruous presence. His gestures are less measured, more expansive than those of the others. The most munificent of the lot -- the first act is an unstinting series of his gestures of largesse -- he is also the least worldly, giving away his possessions in what one character describes as a "motion of raging waste."
Even at this stage, there is at the heart of Mr. Bedford's performance a disquieting touch of the fanatic, and of the willfully deluded child, that prepares us for his psychological reversal. Although Timon's actual moment of transition as Shakespeare wrote it can never be entirely convincing, even in hands as skilled as these, by the play's end Mr. Bedford has retrospectively grounded it in a persuasive emotional logic.
The temptation is to play the mad Timon, whose fourth- and fifth-act speeches are a sustained rant against humanity, as a bleak, Beckettian everyman. Mr. Bedford, in contrast, never lets us forget the psychological specifics of his character. Timon's gestures of the play's first half become stiff, crippled-seeming, sardonic. He is, above all, a man in pain, seared by images of betrayal that seem always to be before him.
This is beautifully rendered in Timon's series of encounters with the Athenians who seek him out in the woods after he has discovered gold there. Confronted with examples of real virtue, as embodied by the captain Alcibiades (Michael Cumpsty) and Timon's loyal steward, Flavius (Jack Ryland), he clearly struggles with memories of a kinder world before dismissing them. The way in which Timon cringes when Alcibiades places a blanket over his hunched shoulders is truly heartbreaking.
Timon is also visited by the cynical philosopher Apemantus (John Franklyn-Robbins, in this version a journalist, of course), who had dampeningly broadcast his bleak world view in the play's early party scenes. This later meeting is played as an incisive counterpoint between two men who have reached the same conclusion through entirely different means: one is intellectual, the other experiential.
In a subtly gauged chain of reactions, Mr. Franklyn-Robbins's posturing pessimist eventually retreats before the glare of the other man's anguish. More than Timon's brutal tirades against the fops and bawds of the world, the scene piercingly measures the depths of unconditional despair, and it is the evening's dramatic high point.
The other performances -- particularly Mr. Cumpsty's glamorously brooding, Che-like military rebel and Herb Foster's steely senator -- breathe generally persuasive life into the play's crowded canvas of characters, though they are inevitably more one-dimensional. The night belongs, above all, to Mr. Bedford, who has turned a disjointed, symbolic construct of a character into a richly shaded portrait that demands our empathy. Surely no one who witnesses this performance will deny him that.
Michael Langham, who staged the National Actors Theater's good production last year of "Saint Joan," continues to bring distinction to Tony Randall's young company, kicking off the third season with Shakespeare's rarely mounted "Timon of Athens." While Langham makes an intermittently bold and always watchable case for the play, the production also makes clear why the play has never been very popular.
Similar to productions of the play Langham staged for the Stratford Festival of Canada, it would more accurately be called "Timon of Paris," for it's set in the Jazz Age and haunted by the spirits of Duke Ellington, Pablo Picasso and Josephine Baker.
With Ellington, more than just the spirit presides; Langham, during his tenure as artistic director at Stratford from 1955 through 1967, struck up a friendship with the composer that resulted in a "Timon" with a jazz underscoring. For this production, the music (taped) has been augmented and adapted by the contemporary composer Stanley Silverman.
Brian Bedford stars as Timon, a wealthy man whose unchecked beneficence ("Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends") drives him into bankruptcy. When the recipients deny him help, Timon renounces them as viciously ("Live loathed, and long") as he once fawned on them effusively. He ends up ruined, as much by bitterness as by poverty.
Though Bedford imparts an appealing light touch -- a look of impish delight often streaks across his face, even at inappropriate moments -- Timon just isn't very interesting. His extremes aren't credible, and when it comes to picking friends, he's a terrible judge of character.
The latter may be a common fault among the rich, but little that happens engages our sympathy. While other elements of the play disclose Shakespeare's gift for social satire, he's ultimately chosen the wrong target.
More accessible are Timon's two foils: the cynic Apemantus (John Franklyn-Robbins), who accepts nothing and spews nastiness without discrimination, and the banished army captain Alcibiades (the able, if uninspired, Michael Cumpsty), who gets a shot at the retribution denied Timon, only to forgo it at news of Timon's death.
There are no standout performances among the 29-member cast, though no embarrassments, either.
Douglas Stein's sophisticated cubist setting for the first half -- high, red angular paneled walls and elegant furnishings -- gives way to a bleak Beckettian stagescape representing Timon's exile (there's even a naked, cruciform tree) and the music all but disappears, only highlighting the play's inconsistencies of style. Ann Hould-Ward's costumes and Richard Nelson's lighting are stylish (not the usual adjective one applies to lighting, but apt here), and other tech credits are high. Langham has given the company its second solid workout.