Front of house are still serving up interval drinks and the audience are taking their seats as, mere metres in front of me, an Athenian noblewoman—whose tribal dress from the previous act has transformed itself into a Dobby-the-house-elf-esque toga—buries her sobbing form into the depths of the imposing construction that stands centre stage.
This is not your classic Shakespeare production. Rather, this is Shakespeare à la Tuesday Night Café (TNC) Theatre—a production set to challenge even the staunchest exponents of the ‘Shakespeare-is-old-and-dull-and-belongs-in-high-school-lit-class’ tradition. What TNC achieves with The Life of Timon of Athens is a dynamic reworking that brings to the fore the honest profundity and contemporary relevance of what is, unfortunately, one of the Bard’s lesser-known works.
The play is bleak and challenging, even by Shakespearean standards. Timon is an Athenian noble (nobleman, in the original) who treats her ‘friends’ with unrivalled kindness, offering patience, praise, loans, expensive gifts, and endless entertainment without asking or expecting anything in return. She lives for the joy of giving and has no doubts that her less well-off friends would do the same were their respective situations reversed. Indeed, she states this belief repeatedly and even laments the distance which her superior wealth creates between them.
The play opens with scenes of her benevolence: lavish banquets and touching speeches on the beauty of friendship—until she is informed that her constant generosity has bankrupted her. She is subsequently confronted with a crowd of debtors demanding repayment. A little embarrassed but unafraid, Timon confidently turns to the kindness of her ‘friends’—who refuse, one by one, to offer her the slightest degree of sympathy or assistance. Driven to despair, she shuns Athens, fleeing into the woods to live out her hateful rage against mankind alone. Cue the Dobby outfit and the emotionally-charged tail-end of the play.
The demands of near-constant stage presence—all but lead lady Emily Murphy appear as multiple, often drastically different characters—hardly show. The performance manages to maintain a high level of energy, even an impressive dose of subtle humour.
The production’s reworking is not limited to the camouflage set—dialogue is altered, scenes blurred, and genders reversed to maintain pace and interest throughout. Some of the bleaker scenes are supplemented with a musical soundtrack that, while minimal, goes a long way toward creating depth of atmosphere. This also reinforces the passion of what may otherwise be quite inaccessible dialogue (this is Shakespeare, after all). The technical quarters also make effective use of lighting to create drama and guide audience attention, sometimes necessary given the proximity of the performers.
Overall, Timon is a highly polished performance, in which technical production, energy, and cast finesse combine to produce a refreshingly real, and engaging portrayal of a classic piece. Come prepared to be shocked, shaken, and confronted with mankind at his ugliest. But also come ready to be amazed at the strength and versatility of TNC’s talented cast and crew. The skill and passion behind this play allow the story itself to shine, and the treatment it is given here may be enough to make you fall (hopefully, fall back) in love with the genius of the English canon’s most famed man.
Life of Timon of Athens runs Nov 7-10 and 14-17 at 8 p.m., Morrice Hall (3485 rue McTavish). Tickets are $10 general, $6 for students.