From Falstaff to Macbeth, from Hamlet to Iago, from Leontes to Benedick -- I find it hard to think of a Shakespearean actor with the range of Simon Russell Beale, except Mark Rylance. Like Gielgud, Russell Beale is instantly recognisable in face and profile, with his bulging eyes and teddy-bear physique. His voice is also unmistakable, like Gielgud's, with its measured and musical delivery. Rather than being a master of disguise, he manages to inhabit every role while always remaining himself.
I first saw him in Shakespeare at the National Theatre in Othello about 15 years ago, then as Hamlet and then as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. I've also seen him at the Almeida playing a uniquely introverted Macbeth, at the Old Vic as Leontes in The Winter's Tale, as Malvolio in Twelfth Night at the Donmar, and most recently on TV as Falstaff. If, to paraphrase Coward, he ever performs the London telephone directory, sign me up for a ticket.
All that by way of getting to the main point: I think his latest role as Timon of Athens at the National possibly outstrips anything he has done before. Russell Beale is a highly cerebral actor and in this play his ability to use his understanding of the words to show Timon's catastrophic fall is mesmerising. I have only seen one previous production of this Middleton/Shakespeare play, a very disappointing effort at Shakespeare's Globe four years ago directed by Lucy Bailey, who for unexplained reasons set the play in an aviary and missed the chance to draw modern parallels. In Nicholas Hytner's modern dress production, which I saw in an early preview, the director transforms a play from 400 years ago into something that could have been written yesterday, pulling off the same difficult trick as he did with The Alchemist, Hamlet and The Man of Mode.
Nicholas Hytner's successful reign at the National has probably forced him to spend more time than he might have wished with the mega-rich -- the bankers and hedge fund owners whose names appear in small print at the back of every National Theatre programme. In an exquisitely framed series of scenes set in an art museum, a bank, a parliamentary lobby, a smart corporate dinner and a fashionable Soho club, Hytner is now able to enjoy quiet revenge for the hours he has spent being polite to odious wealthy donors. Timon is not just wealthy, he's oligarch-rich; his latest philanthropic donation is the Timon Gallery, at the opening of which he presides with courteous bonhomie, dispensing favours beneath an El Greco old master. Timon's empire, like so many today, turns out to be a bubble; when the credit ratings agencies turn on him, the writing is on the wall; the recipients of his generosity stop fawning on him and come up with a series of excuses for refusing to bail him out. From a smooth, silky operator, Timon is suddenly transformed into a dishevelled figure of anger as he understands his business is going to the wall. Inevitably, his underlings leave the building with their desk contents in cardboard boxes -- a Lehman Brothers moment.
In the second half of the play, Timon becomes an outcast; there's a bleakness in the landscape and the acting which is worthy of Samuel Beckett but lacks his redeeming hope and humour. Timon is a troglodyte, a tramp pushing an overloaded shopping trolley stuffed with plastic bags of rubbish, which he scavenges for food. This is the underside of corporate London, where the poor scurry around half-built concrete stumps, sleeping in cardboard cities -- just like the one which was a permanent feature of the concrete underpass at Waterloo until it was cleaned up a few years ago. Timon's anger and hatred not just for Athens but for all human beings is without any redeeming qualities; he spits in the face of his faithful steward (Deborah Findlay) when she comes to help him. His hidden hoard of gold becomes a false substitute for human values, just as much as in the first half of the play.
At this point I have to praise not just Hytner and his excellent cast but his designer Tim Hatley, whose neat and elegant stage set fits the production like a glove and uses the revolve on the Olivier stage to great effect. As I've recently been rude about excessive set design in Shakespeare, let me redress the balance by saying this is exactly how it should be done. Hatley and Hytner between them have got the tiny details exactly right; in the scene set in parliament (the palace of Westminster is framed through a large window) the understrapper whom Timon has despatched to seek a bailout wears a plastic visitor pass pinned to his lapel of exactly the right size and design, while his interlocutor has a permanent parliamentary pass on a chain around her neck. Spot on. In the scene set in a bank, the window is replaced by a giant painting which would be a genuine/fake Damien Hirst if the blobs of colour were round rather than square. Everywhere in this fluid production there is a sense of a different world outside the corporate bubble; before the play starts, the audience sees a half-darkened stage cluttered with cheap tents, a reference to the Occupy movement. The anti-Athenian rebels led by Alcibiades, a gang of violent anti-capitalist protesters, inject a sinister note of violence. There are some unforgettable images -- Timon lifts an iron plate covering a sewer and fishes out his stash of gold bars, bathed in yellow light and wreaths of smoke.
This is a Travelex show, with lots of cheap tickets, though I imagine once the reviews are in it will sell out fast.