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Timon of Athens (1981)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Timon of Athens (1981)
For the BBC Television Shakespeare, tx. 16/4/1981, colour, 128 mins
DirectorJonathan Miller
Production CompaniesBBC Television, Time-Life Television
ProducerJonathan Miller
Script EditorDavid Snodin
DesignerTony Abbott
MusicStephen Oliver

Cast: Jonathan Pryce (Timon); Norman Rodway (Apemantus); John Shrapnel (Alcibiades); John Welsh (Flavius); Hugh Thomas (Lucius); James Cossins (Lucullus); John Bailey (Sempronius); John Fortune (Painter); John Bird (Poet)

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When wealthy and famously generous nobleman Timon of Athens discovers the true state of his financial position, his former friends abandon him, and in disgust he retreats to a cave to rail against humanity.

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Timon of Athens may be Shakespeare's most obscure play, and as a result there has only been one screen adaptation, inevitably as part of the BBC Television Shakespeare cycle. Unexpectedly, the production became somewhat controversial, when the original director Michael Bogdanov insisted on a modern-dress adaptation, which he thought was essential for conveying the play's topical themes of financial corruption and betrayal. Series producer Jonathan Miller, though personally sympathetic, pointed out that this would infringe the funding conditions governing the whole project, and ended up directing Timon himself.

It's a decent rather than outstanding production, though Miller was hampered from the start by the play's flaws and inconsistencies. He and script editor David Snodin made several substantial cuts, mostly to Act II, in order to streamline Timon's discovery of his true financial position and his desperate attempts to borrow money from his former friends. Act V was also significantly trimmed, though the often-cut scene where Alcibiades is banished was retained in its entirety. Given an Elizabethan-era rather than ancient Greek setting, Tony Abbott's designs for the first half were inspired by Dutch painting, and are effectively contrasted with a second half set in a desert so spartan that it recalls Samuel Beckett (Miller's acknowledged inspiration) as much as Shakespeare.

Jonathan Pryce is at his best in the early scenes, effectively exploiting his scared-rabbit persona to convey Timon's underlying uncertainty about the real purpose of his profligate generosity: a desperate need to be loved by members of the establishment, even if it means ignoring the counsel of people who genuinely do care about his welfare (a telling close-up of his empty plate during the opening feast reveals that Timon is too preoccupied with the needs of others to derive any pleasure from his own largesse). But when he begins his self-imposed exile, Pryce's performance becomes less compelling, largely because the production as a whole fails to answer the text's central dilemma: why should we care about someone who starts out a naïve fool and ends up a misanthropic recluse?

Clearly aware of this underlying problem, Miller plays up the comedy, not least by casting actors with a strong track record in that field (notably satirists John Fortune and John Bird), though the most compelling performance is Norman Rodway's Apemantus, by some distance the play's sanest voice - and, in his bitter cynicism, the most recognisably modern.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Timon's generosity (3:41)
2. Chasing favours (2:27)
3. Smoke and water (4:07)
4. Humanity's extremities (1:43)
Bird, John (1936-) and Fortune, John (1939-)
Dors, Diana (1931-1984)
Fortune, John (1939-) and Bird, John (1936-)
Miller, Jonathan (1934)
Pryce, Jonathan (1947-)
BBC Television Shakespeare, The (1978-1985)
Timon of Athens On Screen