A Fool and His Money are Soon Parted

Understanding the Global Financial Crisis, (GFC) courtesy of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens.

If there was ever an argument that the works of Shakespeare are timeless, that notion was borne out by the packed house at the National Theatre in London at Nicholas Hynter’s production of Timon of Athens.

Timon, you see, is wealthy ‘old money’ and generous to his friends, but lives way beyond his means.  He’s rather like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey or like any other member of the ruling elite who thought that the banks would always be there to bail him out.  He’s a patron of the arts and revels in the fawning and gravitas that this confers.  His Getty-like status ensures that there’s even a Timon Room, named for him, at a major gallery.

In the 90s, Timon would have been a heartbeat away from bankruptcy, raiding the pension fund, or buying multiple houses on borrowed money, then using them like cash points in a rising property market.

And Timon, in this production is no longer of Athens, which is fair enough, as setting the play there would have implied that it was the Greek people who caused the GFC – handy if you want a scapegoat, but not entirely true. So Timon is now of the Square Mile, the West End, Mayfair and Kensington – and flashes the cash to various characters – from bestowing one with jewel’s and paying another’s dowry.  But, to parody the title of that Beatles song, Money Can’t Buy Him  Love and Timon’s world collapses when his banker buddies refuse to give him any more credit and ask for their debts to repaid.

Whether or not you buy into Timon’s downfall depends on whether you see him as a victim, or merely a fool.  One reviewer called him a cross between Robert Maxwell, Gordon Brown and ‘Fred the Shred’ Goodwin.  I’d add the Bank of England to this list.

Oh Timon, if only you’d listened to journalist Robert Peston, who warned us all back in 2006, about what would happen to those of us who borrowed when times were good, you wouldn’t have got yourself into that financial mess.  But Timon’s fall from grace is as swift as it is understandable, (and made swifter still as Hynter has edited out 250 lines from the First Folio text of 1623, which, according to the programme, ‘is not believed to be a finished script for performance.’)

Good is what I say to that, because as much as I love this play (and I do, even though it is unfinished) and I have always been prepared to forgive the last two acts, as the first half is so astonishing.  As a writer, there is plenty to learn from the play’s flaws  – it has characteristics of both tragedy and satire, but unlike other Shakesperean tragedies – we don’t really find out what befalls Timon as his death takes place off-stage and also, rather unsatisfactorily, there is no catharsis for the main character at the end.

If I’m going to spend money on a theatre ticket I prefer works that help me  try to make sense of the world I live in.  And this play, where the military invasion of Athens is replaced by a takeover by the Occupy Movement, made me question why the world’s financial markets collapsed in the way that they did.  It’s as relevant today as Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money, also revived this summer, written in the wake of the Big Bang de-regulation of the financial markets during the Thatcher era.

The irony isn’t lost on me that the only reason I could get to see this play on a £12 Travelex ticket was due to the generosity of a money-changing company – as well as all the other corporate sponsors – including both Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan – the latter facing questions over its role in the Libor rate-rigging scandal.  Corporate sponsorship is nothing new – there would have been no Renaissance art were it not for the Medici family – so I’m not going to lose any sleep over which companies subsidised my ticket. Instead, I am immensely grateful that I am lucky enough to be within striking distance of the National, to take advantage of these astonishingly good value tickets.

But lest you think that the National Theatre is merely the stomping ground for the privileged, think again.  For Timon of Athens is to be recorded and transmitted as live to a cinema near you on November the 1st.  It’s a play that’s so rarely performed that this might be your only chance to see it.  If there’s one thing that we excel at in the UK, it is that, despite the recession we have a thriving theatre culture that, compared with New York or Sydney, one that won’t cost you an arm and a leg to go.  And in these gloomy economic times, that’s surely something to celebrate?

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