Back in 1991, Paul and I went to the National Theatre on the South Bank to see Tony Harrison’s The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus (1988), about the work of Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, two Oxford scholars who stumbled across a treasure trove of papyrii in the rubbish heaps of the town of Oxyrhyncus in Egypt. What the scholars were in search of was so-called literary texts such as playscripts. They found these but because paper was so expensive everything was reused so on the backs of the plays and poetry the scholars also found accounts and letters and petitions – lots and lots of petitions, me metanastes, don’t take my home from me. Grenfell is portrayed as being more interested in plays while Hunt is preoccupied with the daily lives of the people as shown on the other side of the papyrii. It didn’t take a towering genius to work out that Tony Harrison was making a very vocal point about the state of Britain, highly apposite given the number of homeless then living on the South Bank itself.
Harrison’s play was an adaptation of the fragments of Sophocles’ Ichneutae also known as theSearchers,Trackers orTracking Satyrs found at Oxyrhynchus. The story is that Apollo’s cattle have been stolen by the child Hermes, and the satyrs have been sent out to track the cows down. They find instead Hermes playing the musical instrument he has made from the cows’ bones, the lyre which will be adopted by Apollo. The clog-dancing satyrs are , as I read Harrison’s play, representative of an older, cruder form of performance which will be supplanted by Apollo and his lyre, and a new form of drama. At the time I remember being troubled by the thought that Harrison’s ‘rough’ drama was maybe being somehow lost in translation as we all sat around in the National, watching actors dressed up as clog-dancing satyrs with unfeasibly large foam-rubber genitalia, having ourselves ponied up a fair amount of money to be there. Indeed, I actually wrote a short play of my own afterwards in an effort to come to terms with this discrepancy, in which I was rather critical of Harrison’s play.
At the time it bothered me that Harrison seemed not to offer any kind of hope – as the Ichneutae wasn’t finished, we couldn’t know what Sophocles intended anyway, but even so. Now, being less politically naive, it seems to me that Harrison was right not to offer anything because there was nothing to offer. All he could do was document what was happening, in Oxyrhynchus and in Britain – the pleas of ‘don’t make me homeless’. In 1991, we didn’t know that ‘things can only get better’ was going to become the theme song of the latter part of the decade. Thatcher had fallen but the Conservatives staggered on. It was going to be a long, long haul, for which our reward would be the Apollonian glint of Tony Blair’s teeth bared in his best reassuring smile as he told us how he felt the hand of history on his shoulder and led us into a war that was none of our business.
Twenty-one years later, I’m back at the National, once again thinking about the homeless and the dispossessed as I watch the National’s production of Timon of Athens. Or, rather, this time I’m not at the National, because we can’t afford the tickets and the train fare; that kind of thing has gone by the board since I became a student. Instead, we are at the Gulbenkian Cinema in Canterbury, watching the production by live relay from London. As we shall discover during the evening, it will be totally unlike a theatrical event while at the same time being not at all like a trip to the cinema. I would almost liken it to watching tv in a stranger’s house, along with several hundred of their close associates, except for certain differences I’ll come to shortly.
Timon of Athens is, according to the National’s own website,
[a w]ealthy friend to the rich and powerful, patron of the arts, ostentatious host, [who] showers gifts and hospitality on the city’s elite. He vastly outspends his resources but, finding his coffers empty, reassures his loyal steward that all will be well.
When he calls upon his erstwhile associates, instead of offering help, they hang him out to dry. After a final, vengeful banquet, Timon withdraws to a literal and emotional wasteland, living off roots and pouring ever more surreal curses on a morally bankrupt Athens.
In fact, the production is rather more complicated than that thumbnail summary would suggest. Indeed, the play itself is far more complicated than the summary would suggest. The programme book suggests that it’s not so much a play as a series of sketches for a play, which would certainly explain the fact that the only real connection between the two halves, apart from the interval, is that the same characters turn up in both.
Nicholas Hytner, the director, sees Timon as a complex psychological study, a man whose gift-giving is a form of maintaining balance. The play portrays a complex economy based on giving gifts and buying influence, an economy in which Timon participates but which he clearly does not fully understand. As a man with wealth and influence, he is the recipient of gifts, and indeed expects to be the recipient of gifts. However, he seems unable to make a distinction between what one might call professional gift-givers, people who want something from him, and friends. While he understands that the gift-giving builds connections he seems not to realise that the links made, like the gifts, are purely a matter of business. While these people are his friends, he is not their friend except insofar as he can provide them with gifts and support. He banks all on friendship; for them, friendship extends only so long as Timon’s purse is full. And because Timon is already emotionally bankrupt he doesn’t see how hollow the connections already are and is shocked by people’s refusal to help him when he has, as the debt-collectors astutely note, lost access to credit because all his money has been given to help other people out of trouble. Unsurprisingly, the philanthropist of the first half becomes the raging misanthropist of the second half, spurning even his steward, who tried to save him, and the philosopher, Apemantus, a cynic who has never taken a penny from Timon but who has tried instead to show Timon the true nature of the people around him. One of the best moments of the play comes in the second half as Apemantus, magnificently played by Hilton McRae, seeks out Timon, played equally magnificently by Simon Russell Beale, and tries to persuade him to come back to the city. One senses at this moment that Apemantus, for all his cynicism, is sympathetic towards Timon and is offering him genuine friendship but Timon, emotionally blighted as he is, simply cannot make that connection.
While the disintegration of a man who can’t distinguish between friendship bought and friendship made is documented in a series of terrifying speeches by Timon, rebellion rumbles behind the scenes, led by Alcibiades, a young man who is clearly out of sympathy with the senators of Athens. According to various explanations I’ve looked at since, Alcibiades is another friend of Timon’s who is genuinely angry at the way in which he is treated. However, in Hytner’s production, Alcibiades is a more mysterious figure. If he was present at Timon’s dinner it’s hard to remember him being at the table, and I don’t believe he was there. Instead, Hytner’s Alcibiades is the nominal leader of a rebellion that knows something is wrong without being clear as to what would be right.
Perhaps inevitably, Hytner’s production draws on the financial crashes of the last few years, with some of Timon’s soi-disant friends positioned as the teflon-coated bankers, and on the activities of the Occupy movement, personified in Alcibiades’ followers. Inevitable and yet this felt crude and obvious, and I found myself just a little disappointed in Hytner. Although the discontent in the streets is always lurking– during the first half of the play we often see the banking flunkies peering anxiously out of windows as the turmoil of the crowd passes below; and well might they be anxious for they of course will be the victims if their firm goes under, toting their possessions out in boxes in that only-too-familiar image – when we finally encounter it directly our point of contact is Timon, who has so thoroughly rejected society he cannot even properly make a connection with the rebels. As a result of that, it is difficult to get any sense of them as anything more than a shadowy mass. Timon can give them money (for, bizarrely, he has found a great treasure) and insist they use it to bring down society, but the play is at this point so thin it scarcely makes sense. Indeed, by the end of the play Hytner has the rebels at the board table with the senators in a form of coalition – you can see where this is going, can’t you? The senate might as well be composed of rich young men from Eton (though Hytner does make some attempt to redress the gender balance by including female senators, a female steward and so on).
I’m not actually convinced that Hytner’s sympathies do lie with the bankers, the celebrities and the luvvies, and it’s clear he appreciates the irony of what he is doing with Timon, but there is also no doubt that he is still playing into a threatening narrative of the shadowy faceless underclass, what we now know to be plebs, while the social world of endless parties filled with leggy beauties and their vacuous consorts is much more fully realised. I can’t help thinking that for many people, as with Trackers, the irony is likely to get lost somewhere along the way.
In fact, for the viewer at a distance I don’t think it is so much lost as stifled at birth. For those present at the performance, their first sight of the stage is of it covered with tents like those which quickly gathered around St Paul’s. These will be whirled out of sight as the play starts and we attend the opening of the Timon Room at an unnamed gallery that looks awfully like the National Gallery or the Tate. Nonetheless, until the play begins the theatre-goer must sit and contemplate those tents and their occupants, however tacky the coup de théâtre might be.
For those of us in the Gulbenkian Cinema, the experience was rather different. We were asked to be in our seats by 7 p.m., which puzzled me slightly as I was fairly sure the production would start at 7.30 and I didn’t think it was that long a play. As we took our seats, we were treated to a looping slideshow of pictures from the production’s programme book, which was also on sale. Occasionally this was interrupted by shots from the auditorium of the audience taking its place, the tents on stage and so on, and then it was back to the stills and slides explaining the work of the National’s costume department. Did you know that …? I did not and found myself wondering why I needed to be told all this.
And then Emma Freud appeared on our screen; her role, it turned out, was to guide us through the taxing business of virtually attending a play. Emma, our gushing hostess, clipboard in hand (no, really), welcomed us to the event like a door-flunkey checking that we were entitled to be present at this wonderful event. It turned out that someone somewhere seemed to have decided that it was not enough for us to buy tickets, park our bums on seats and watch the proceedings like the theatre-goers in London. No, it seemed that someone somewhere was very concerned that because we were not in the theatre itself, and presumably were new to the idea of Seeing a Play, we must have the whole thing explained to us Very Carefully by Emma, who was So Excited that we could be there and was going to show us a film about the inspiration behind the production and get Nicholas Hytner to explain what was going on so we understood all about it. And so we were patronised on from a great height and for some time, not only before the play but also during the interval, as though we couldn’t be left to amuse ourselves for half an hour.
The short interview with Hytner was as notable for his admirable patience in dealing with the lovely Emma as it was for her vacuity in interviewing him. The film was mainly aimed at getting over the point that it was all linked to banking crises and the Occupy movement, in case we couldn’t get that for ourselves. Mainly, however, I was struck by the way the entire set-up, I trust inadvertently, was organised so as to put this audience in its place, in the provinces and not in the theatre, allowed to watch but not to participate, and with the assumption that we needed to be guided through the process to get its full benefit and be constantly reassured by Emma Freud that we’d love it, it was such a privilege to have us there (and obviously, for us to be there too), and so on, presumably to set us at our ease in these unfamiliar surroundings. Quite unintentionally it reinforced a number of the points Hytner was making with the production itself, with Emma Freud as gatekeeper, constantly reminding us that our presence was contingent and we could only watch.
None of which is quite what I’d anticipated from the evening but it was in its way an interesting experience. The production was fascinating, the performance excellent, but as to the rest … I admit I’d think twice about doing it again if I have to undergo this kind of thing every time. I hadn’t expected to be reaching back twenty-one years like that, revisiting the gulf between the haves and have-nots and indeed to find a whole new level of exclusion. It was a salutary reminder that little has changed, except perhaps that I’m slightly less naive than I was and the lower middle classes are now as terrifying as the faceless mob and must be put firmly in their place as well.
By coincidence, Paul has also written about our experiences at the theatre. You can read his thoughts at Big Other.
Interesting piece about responses to simulcasts of performances from the New York Metropolitan Opera. Similar anxieties and confusion about how to respond effectively.