I am intrigued by news of the forthcoming Dublin production of Timon of Athens at Project Arts Centre. By my count, this will be the seventh time the play has been staged in Dublin – ever.
It’s thus one of the least performed of Shakespeare’s plays in Dublin: the only plays that have been performed less frequently in the city are Titus Andronicus (3) and Troilus and Cressida and Two Gents (once each). And between 1660 and 1904, there are no records of performances for Pericles, Love’s Labour’s Lost or the three parts of Henry VI.
To put those figures in contrast, between 1660 and 1904, there were 622 productions of Hamlet, 475 of Macbeth, 453 of Richard III, 422 of Othello, and 381 of Romeo and Juliet. In other words, Shakespeare was always very popular in Dublin – it’s just that Timon itself was for a long time regarded as unstageable and uninteresting.
These figures, by the way, are taken from the Irish Theatrical Diaspora database on Shakespearean Production. The research was done by Deirdre McFeely.
The earliest recorded production of the play in Ireland comes in 1714 at Smock Alley (about 45 years after its first recorded London production). There was another in 1741 in Aungier Street when the role of Apemantus was taken on by the great Anglo-Irish actor James Quin, who had previously played the part in a Covent Garden production.
It was done again in 1761 (on 3 June to be precise), and we actually have quite a good idea of who was in it. Henry Mossop played the lead role, and there is a good cast list in the National Library. Originally from Galway, Mossop had joined the Smock Alley company in the 1740s, before joining Garrick in London. Mossop took over Smock Alley in c. 1760, where he spent a lot of his time trying to fend off competition from a rival company run in Crow Street by Spranger Barry. It’s curious that he chose to stage Timon during this period: it’s not a play that has ever drawn a crowd (until quite recently – more about that below), though it’s notable that it was advertised as a play “written by Shakespeare”. In other words, the marketing strategy was to highlight the author rather than the play.
It was done again in 1783, again at Smock Alley. And in 1817 the great Edmund Kean played the role in Crow Street. Not much is known about the performance in Dublin, but in 1907 The Irish Times ran a feature about Kean’s performances in Dublin, and it noted that staging of Timon.
We have no other record of a production of the play until 1972 when the Abbey Theatre hosted a visiting production of the play by Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre. The lead role was taken by Ian McDiarmid, a great actor who is still best known for playing the role of the Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi and those awful prequel films that We Shall Not Mention. In an interview with the Irish Times in 2008, McDiarmid recalled that production with some embarrassment: apparently, a Dubliner in the front row shouted “you’re murdering the Bard” to the actors. “I could do nothing but agree,” said McDiarmid.
Having said that, reports at the time (again in The Irish Times) berated Dublin audiences for skipping the play (which only ran for a week). Faced with a choice between Timon and the newly-opened Brendan Behan play Richard’s Cork Leg, most Dubliners went for the latter.
The image below shows McDiarmid in a Citizens’ production of Life of Galileo from 1971:
The play does crop up in Irish culture from time to time, however. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, there were a lot of public lectures on Shakespeare around the country, and there are records of packed-out public talks about Timon in Cork and Dublin. And it’s quoted from time to time, usually in response to political events of the day. For instance, a letter to The Irish Times about Watergate quotes from the play. And in the 1980s there’s an interesting reference to Charles Haughey and Timon in that newspaper, with particular reference to the links between politics and money: a fascinating example of the Irish tendency to hint at the things that everyone knows but which no-one will say.
The most recent major production of the play was at the National in London, where Nick Hytner re-set the play to contemporary London. Suddenly Timon’s story seemed sadly apt: Shakespeare’s treatment of the relationship between profligacy and debt – and the human and societal cost of bankruptcy – seemed stunningly relevant when re-set to the City of London shortly after the 2008 Crash. And the direction of the poet in the play – performed not just as a sycophant but as a parasite – highlighted the Faustian pact that artists enter into when they seek patronage from the wealthy.
In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale (shown above) was (as ever) sympathetic and charismatic. And the production’s design and direction managed the difficult trick of making the play seem contemporary without contrasting too heavily with the original text.
But the production didn’t quite dispel my feeling that this is a very odd play. The shift from the first to the second half is thematically interesting but theatrically confusing: Shakespeare matches Timon’s wealth with formal dynamism, while his impoverishment is performed in much longer, more plodding scenes. And where Lear’s loss of everything makes him massively sympathetic, Timon remains difficult to care for.
Hytner addressed these problems with some careful cutting (as well as the inclusion of some passages from Coriolanus), but my feeling about the production was that it found a way to stage Timon that could not be repeated: Hytner had chosen it for a specific time and place, and it had meaning in that context. But could it be revived or toured? Not without the loss of something, I think.
So it’s a play that needs to be cut and/or adapted. Hytner’s adaptation offered one approach; the 1817 version was also an adaptation and it’s likely that the versions staged in the 1700s were not of the original play but of Thomas Shadwell’s version (this is certainly true of the 1714 production). The AC Productions staging of the play is described as an adaptation – so it will be interesting to see what they make of it.
The production opens at Project next week – and the Youtube video below has already been released for it (note the inclusion of an image of a newspaper from 2014, suggesting a contemporary setting and/or context). It’s certainly a play for our times, asking difficult questions about debt and how we treat people who once had money but now have none – I’d imagine that Irish audiences might see in Timon something of Sean Quinn or Tony O’Reilly. Should be worth catching anyway: we might have to wait another forty years before it’s done here again…