The other night I went to see the National Theatre production of Timon of Athens. But I did not go to the National Theatre in London to see it, nor did the National Theatre come to me. Rather, I saw it on film in a lecture theatre that doubles as a cinema (or perhaps nowadays it would be more accurate to say, a cinema that occasionally doubles as a lecture theatre) at the University of Kent at Canterbury. The play was being staged in the National Theatre on the South Bank in London (it was the last night of the run), but it was being filmed, and the film transmitted to Canterbury and other screens around the country.
So I was watching a live play as it was being performed. But it was not live. And I was watching a film. But it was not a film.
This contradiction, this disconnect, is part (though only part) of what made the whole event such a peculiar experience.
I like live theatre, and wish I could see more of it. But it is now prohibitively expensive for us to get to London to see a play. So this seemed like a reasonable substitute. Now, I’m not so sure. Or rather, if we do this again (and there is a production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate starring John Lithgow coming up in March that looks rather tasty), I am going to have to revise my expectations of exactly what it is we are going to see.
It was the ways in which this differed from going to see a play that I found rather irksome, particularly as, in terms of the externals, they tried to make the whole thing as much like going to the theatre as possible. For example, we bought exactly the same programme for the play that the theatregoers in London would have bought.
But we were in a cinema. The screen, as we took our seats, was occupied with advertisements for future National Theatre productions and rehearsal stills from Timon of Athens that I had already seen in the programme. Eventually, as the hour came up, the cameras in the theatre came on and we were suddenly treated to the invariable scene of a theatre audience filing into the auditorium, chatting among themselves, taking in the darkened stage which was, at this moment taken up with a fair approximation of the Occupy camp outside St Paul’s. They, of course, were not treated to advertisements for future productions or overblown rehearsal stills; they could get all that by leafing through their programmes, the same programmes that we had. Not a big thing, but perhaps a first inkling that theatre audience and cinema audience were being regarded as two very different beasts.
And then the show starts. Or rather, it doesn’t, because first we must have an introduction by television personality Emma Freud. It doesn’t help that the introduction is about as patronising as it is possible to get. But really, do we need this at all? If we were in the theatre (which this is supposedly emulating) we wouldn’t get an introduction. It is assumed that theatre audiences are adults, able to gather what information they may need from the programme (the same programme we have, remember) and intelligent enough to gather what is happening in a play by watching the play. But we are watching a screen, not a stage, and so there is the presumption that we must need spoon-feeding to some extent.
I get sick and tired of how infantile much television is. And this was like watching a very big television set with a couple of hundred strangers.
When the interval came around, people in the theatre could go out to the bar or buy an ice cream and stay in the auditorium; those of us in the cinema could go out to the bar or buy an ice cream and stay in the auditorium. Yet again, the one experience mirrors the other. Except that those of us in the cinema also got a little film to keep us amused. Emma Freud popped up again, this time conducting a terribly matey little interview with the director of the play, and Artistic Director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner. This mostly consisted of a little plug for the next three simultaneous film shows they have lined up. But at the end she has to ask him to tell us what we are going to see in the second half. Theatre audiences don’t need this, but we are watching a screen so we have to be told what it is we are seeing.
As for the play/film itself: technically the filming was excellent. The sound quality wasn’t so great, the sound cutting out altogether on rather too many occasions, though never for more than a few seconds at a time. But the pictures were very high quality, and some of the compositions were astoundingly effective. It’s just that they were the sorts of pictures you get when you watch a film or TV programme. We were seeing in far greater detail than the theatre audience (and when Timon discovers his gold at the start of Act II we were up above him looking down, a perspective that no theatre audience could ever expect to share), we were in close up most of the time; and yet I felt we were seeing less than the theatre audience.
One of the real pleasures of watching a play live in the theatre, for me, is that we are free to let our attention wander. Maureen and I, for instance, first took notice of Alan Rickman and Kenneth Branagh in secondary parts (Jacques and Laertes, respectively). What we noticed was how our eyes were drawn to them at the side or the back of the stage even when the focus should have been on the main characters centre stage. We were free to watch what was going on behind and around the main action.
Watching the play on film we did not have that freedom. Our gaze was directed the whole time. If Simon Russell Beale, who played Timon, was on stage, then the camera was on Simon Russell Beale. Now this is not a hardship, Simon Russell Beale gave an absolutely stunning performance and it was fascinating to watch him in close up. The problem was that we had no alternative, and we never knew what else might be going on that would have been interesting to watch. If the next Rickman or Branagh was in that play (and there were some players in relatively small parts – Nick Sampson as a poet, Penny Layden as a painter, Craige Els as Caphis – that might well have commanded our attention) we didn’t have the opportunity to watch them out of the spotlight.
I know that live broadcasts like this have been done for concerts for some time, and the National Theatre has been staging them on a fairly regular basis since Helen Mirren’s Phèdre, but I didn’t really know what to expect. Rather naively I supposed there would be one camera showing the whole stage as we might see it from a seat maybe in the centre of the stalls. In other words, I expected that what we saw would be an emulation of what we would see in the theatre itself. What we actually saw was theatre emulating film or television, and it underlined for me the difference between the various media.
But if the experience itself was one thing that made the evening peculiar, the other thing was the actual play.
Timon of Athens, or more correctly The Life of Tymon of Athens, was a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton. It seems to have been included in the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays more or less by accident. And there are authorities who say it is not a finished play but rather a sketch that was never completed and was very probably not performed at the time. I wouldn’t know, but it certainly feels incomplete.
In the first half, we meet Timon, the richest man in the city, who has bought the friendship of everyone who is anyone by gifts, patronage, and helping to pay off other people’s fines and bills. But he is over-stretched, and when he calls on all his wealthy friends to help, they spurn him. This half of the play is brilliant stuff, powerful, vivid, dramatically engaging.
In the second half, Timon is broke and has exiled himself from Athens. He has become instantly embittered, which gives rise to some glorious flights of misanthropy. But this part of the play has barely started before he finds an incredible horde of gold. Rumours of this new wealth bring a rag-tag series of encounters, with thieves, rebels, and most of his old fawning acquaintances, none of which seems to link up with any other. In the end, Timon dies off stage, the rebels reach an accommodation with the city leaders, and nothing changes. Some of the flights of language are glorious; there is an exchange between Timon and the cynic Apemantus (a performance by Hilton McRae that rivals Simon Russell Beale’s) that is as wonderful in the way true friendship is expressed through a stream of insults. But other than that, this whole part of the play is undramatic, disconnected, unengaging and doesn’t actually make much sense.
Hytner had the idea of setting the play in the City of London at the point of the financial crisis. The rebels led by Alcibiades (Ciarán McMenamin) are recast as the Occupy movement, and throughout the first part of the play there’s a running joke in which the powerful financiers are constantly looking out of their high office windows in dismay at the demonstrators. The conceit of this modern setting works very well; the way Timon uses his wealth like a Renaissance prince, sponsoring the arts, giving gifts, bailing out the wayward sons of business associates is very like the way a modern financier might use his wealth. I was also impressed with the psychological depth Simon Russell Beale brings to the character. You get a clear sense of someone unable to interact with others (every time he has to shake hands, he takes out a handkerchief to wipe his hand afterwards), and so sees friendship purely in terms of a financial transaction. That is why the one person who offers genuine friendship, Apemantus, is forever pushed away. And yet Timon does inspire loyalty from his staff, especially from his steward Flavius (here renamed Flavia, and played excellently by Deborah Findlay) because they see him acting honourably; which highlights the dishonour in the way the other financiers behave once Timon is down on his luck.
The comparisons with the financial crisis are perhaps a little obvious, perhaps a little heavy-handed, but they work for the first half of the play. But because everything becomes so muddled and confused and disjointed in the second half, we lose the clear point that was being made. Any satirical weight that the first half of the play carried is completely lost by the time we come to the final mess of a scene.
Should more of these simultaneous broadcasts come to Canterbury, I will probably try to catch them. Because it is better than no play at all. But still, but still …