Howls of anguish shattered the silence, darkness descending like a pall over the crowd. The banquet had been cheerful and relaxed, the tinkle of champagne glasses blending with casual cocktail music and the hum of conversation. It seemed impossible to remember. As the tortured face seethed from the balcony, the transformation was complete, and Magdalen Hall plunged ahead into human hell.
At its best, performing Timon of Athens is a daunting task. It’s not easy to love a play about a misanthrope, but the Magdalen Players handle the challenge with precision and poise in director Gabriel Rolfe’s audacious adaptation of Shakespeare’s most vitriolic work. Stakes run high for actors and spectators alike in this promenade production; Magdalen Hall is Timon’s table, and the audience joins a boisterous banquet of baklava and apples alongside pernicious painters and perfumed prostitutes, stooped servants and fearsome soldiers.
This is Shakespeare outside time and space – a drunken pianist (Tim Lintern) sports sunglasses – and distinctions between audience and cast dissolve in a shared feast. In an avaricious world where friendships flicker like the candles onstage, Timon (Tom Dowling) distributes gifts with reckless abandon. Debauchery reigns, and the court revels in the favors of drag queens, shameless self-indulgence, and its own chaotic greed.
But when his fortunes falter and creditors loom, Timon finds himself abandoned, left alone with the ever-attentive Flavius (Percy Stubbs) and the cynicism of Apemantus (John Phipps). Timon’s thirst for praise collapses into insanity and invective; his friendships gone, he feeds on hate. He may be a misanthrope, but Dowling’s Timon strikes a masterful balance between desperation and rage, a physical craving for approval anchored in unspoken fear.
As he crawls out of his robes and into a cave, Dowling embodies torment made visible, shrieking himself into a shuddering pile of nerves and skin. The chemistry he shares with the dependable Flavius is electric, and Stubbs delivers a striking servant on the tantalizing border between denying wealth’s temptation and becoming the master he once sought to save.
A crisp cast lends fluidity to a play stretched between extremes of jubilation and agony, with other standout performances coming from the churlish John Phipps – whose hobbling Apemantus remains the constant voice of scorn in this hedonistic realm – and Dan Byam Shaw’s Alcibiades, an exiled captain who commands the stage with as much force as a platoon.
Electing to produce the show in Magdalen Hall was a stroke of brilliance, and the ancient room’s grandeur speaks for itself. In a potent moment of stagecraft, Timon reclines at the high table surrounded by twelve followers in a perverse inversion of the Last Supper, a monetary Christ surrounded by the collective Judas.
Will Forrest’s ambitious lighting design later illuminates Timon’s face from below to superimpose his shadow on the stone wall, and it becomes clear that this is no longer a man speaking to us, but the latent darkness within him. Under the innovative control of the Magdalen Players, this production succeeds in lending chilling new life to one of Shakespeare’s least-known plays. A prolonged concluding silence feels awkward and uncomfortable, but so does the realization that Timon’s hatred has exposed the illusion of virtue as a social contract, leaving behind an emptiness filled with doubt.