Considering Timon of Athens is a play not many have heard of and probably fewer have seen, Bard on the Beach’s new production is a marvel. A meditation on the politics of friendship, loyalty and money – Meg Roe shapes this nebulous story into coherence as an unlikely metaphor for our time.
The play follows the waning fortunes of a Vancouver socialite as she learns the true value of friends when her money runs out. In the title part, Colleen Wheeler is a force of nature, equally graceful as she plays host to grand parties and menacingly strident when she finally lashes out at her enemies.
The play begins with Timon fêting her friends in grand style as she lavishes them with gifts and accepts their fawning flattery. But the easy bonhomie quickly vanishes when Timon learns she’s deeply in debt. Her surprise boils into a rage as the friends who enjoyed her beneficence offer nothing when approached for aid.
Lacking the usual Shakespearean romantic twists or family entanglements, Timon of Athens has the flavour of a fable and Roe sharpens this by cutting out many of the original script’s extraneous plot points and going right for the heart of the moral matter.
Timon originally runs 3 hours, but Roe’s version is a fast-paced and more plausible 90 minutes.
The most obvious update is the number of women on stage. Where the original play called for a nearly all-male cast, Roe has assigned all major parts to women and only enlisted men as the wait staff for the fabulous all female party that opens the play.
This gender flip is especially satisfying considering the original script cast women only as dancers and prostitutes.
The set by Drew Facey incorporates the Bard tent in a way that’s sophisticated and spare. Evoking a strata penthouse with columns and an open concept floor plan, the scene feels contemporary and timeless. And Roe has done the audience another favour by combining redundant dialogue and scenes from the original script into a singular event as the audience eavesdrops on the opening cocktail party from every angle in the intimate Douglas Campbell Theatre. Characters chit chat, fret over pinging cell phones and exchange pleasantries that belie big questions about the nature of human connection in the era of smartphones and superficial social feeds.
Realizing the skin deep loyalty of her so friends, the play culminates in a satisfying crescendo as Timon unleashes her wrath in a final, unforgettable dinner party. As Timon deconstructs her relationships – and a good part of the set – we’re invited to consider what money, friends and status are truly worth.