Leura Everglades, January 6


This explodes like a new star in the firmament of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve seen. It has a truth, an energy and a ferocity to make the blood drain from your face, and it also begs the question, why is Timon of Athens the most ignored of Shakespeare’s plays?

The noted US academic, Harold Bloom, observed that Timon “stages better than it reads”, but that’s only true if the production has a protagonist whose tragedy gouges your eyes and makes your ears bleed; a Timon brave enough to drag you to the brink of what it means to be human. And Margaret Thanos’s Sport for Jove production has that in Damien Ryan. Here Ryan takes his art to a new level; to one that few actors achieve on any stage anywhere. Visceral, raw, compelling and moving, this is a performance you won’t forget.

Mike booth and Damien Ryan. Photos: Kathy Luu.

In reviewing Shakespeare, one usually doesn’t bother with the plot, but Timon’s obscurity makes it worth explaining that the titular character is renowned as an extravagant host and giver of gifts. Generosity being a stronger suit of his than wisdom, he runs himself into bankruptcy, and must beg favours from those “friends” upon whom he’s bestowed such beneficence. Now he finds those friends were merely sycophants who cold-shoulder him, and so he renounces Athens, and retreats to the wilds to live in abject poverty.

It is the only Shakespeare play (one possibly co-written with Thomas Middleton) to have a two-act structure, even if it’s presented in written form with the conventional five. And that second act, when Timon the altruist has contorted into Timon the ultimate misanthrope, is in many ways the darkest in the canon. If it lacks the swelling evil of Macbeth, it arrives at a confronting nihilism that’s a direct forbear of Samuel Beckett’s work.

The first half, by contrast, is a satirical comedy, replete with the dramatic irony of our being able to see the folly of Timon’s ways and the fatuousness of his guests, while he lives in a stupor of popularity (the parallel with contemporary social media being alarming).

Damien Ryan. Photos: Kathy Luu.

Thanos (who’s renamed the show, presumably for marketing appeal) has a keen eye for communicating meaning through movement, and she offers us a contemporary Athens of false bonhomie lewd excess. The outdoor performance’s timing is perfect: the frothy first act plays as the sun lingers, while darkness has fallen for the second.

Among a cast of 12, Deborah Galanos is outstanding as Timon’s (gender-swapped) unfailingly loyal steward, Flavia, as is Mike Booth as the intellectually tinder-dry Apemantus. But, as Macbeth owns his play, so Timon owns this, and Ryan breaks our hearts repeatedly, with Timon’s naked soul mirrored in his naked body. The play is a savage indictment of greed and hypocrisy, ending with an added coda of a dog-eat-dog world, and the production stands at the pinnacle of Shakespeare in Sydney this century.

Until January 21.