Bringing to life one of Shakespeare’s less revered works, Tuesday Night Cafe Theatre’s (TNC) current production, directed by Michael Ruderman, is an adapted version of The Life of Timon of Athens. An exploration of the underlying animal nature of humanity, the play recounts the tale of an affluent Athenian gentlewoman, Timon, played by Emily Murphy, who squanders her riches on gifts for her superficial “friends,” only to find herself left penniless and in a state of social ruin.
The play consists of two parts instead of the traditional Shakespearean five acts, making it somewhat more bearable to sit through as a spectator, despite its flaws. The first part demonstrates the hedonistic lifestyle of a self-absorbed Athenian noble who loves lavish feasts and the attention she obtains from her charitable gifts. It was refreshing to see a woman take the traditionally male lead role, and this portion of the play was highly animated, with the characters playing on a wide range of emotions, exploding with bouts of indignation, joy, sadness, and envy.
Despite the director’s best efforts, during the second half, the play became a tragic bore for the audience. In the second part the play nearly devolves into a one-woman show, with a complete breakdown of the cheerful dialogue witnessed in the first half of the play. Timon becomes a dismal wretch; the façade of her previous narcissism decaying into intense fear, paranoia, and crazed behaviour. Her degradation quickly becomes overwhelming, after which point the play is no longer enjoyable.
Despite this maudlin turn of events, Shakespeare presents the opportunity for viewers’ self-identification through the devastated character of Timon, the everywoman, whose foolish materialism led her to financial and social poverty. She foolishly rejects humanity altogether, seeing humans as no better than beasts, and retreats to a cave in the wilderness, determined to isolate herself from all others.
According to Ruderman, Athenian captain Alcibiades is Timon’s foil, as he is “perfectly comfortable in accepting the animal in the human” that Timon struggles against. Alcibiades’ military profession is inherently violent, and he also pursues sex with abandon, both supposedly “animal” qualities. Ruderman notes that Timon, in contrast, either endeavours to be superior to these fundamental aspects of humanity, as seen in her initial “absurd altruism,” or else she rejects humanity and materialism altogether. Though we may not like to identify ourselves with Timon’s misanthropy, it is paradoxically an intrinsic human quality.
In an effort to draw meaning from her despondency, we may take away another social warning. In today’s era when spendthrift people feel the squeeze of financial worries, Timon is evocative of “what an alteration of honour want [has] made”; in other words, how deeply detrimental excessive materialism is to social relations in society. You cannot genuinely buy friends.
Ruderman inserted many humorous notes into his creation – the chorus member played by Christian Morey was a ‘bag of tricks,’ with his articulate transformations of character, his sarcasm, and his comical accents. As for Timon, it is difficult to separate the quality of Murphy’s portrayal from the fact that she plays one of Shakespeare’s least appealing lead roles. While Shakespeare gave Timon an inordinate amount of stage time, the auxiliary characters often commanded more attention. Sometimes, Murphy appeared too complacent in her role, and I found myself overlooking her presence onstage.
Overall, thanks to the enthusiasm of the supporting roles, and Ruderman’s modernizing nuances, the audience was able to endure the dreary plot. The play without doubt represents one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works, in that the viewer is left utterly depressed by the unrelentingly negative underlying moral. Timon evolves into such a bitter, spiteful shell of a woman that in the end it seems the audience can no longer empathize with her. Ruderman remarks that, in the face of critical views that the play is one of Shakespeare’s worst artistic creations, he views Timon of Athens more charitably as “unfinished experimentation.”