Video Review: Timon of Athens, BBC, 1981

In 1981, as part of the third season of its Collected Works series, the BBC tackled one of only 5 plays that hadn’t been produced by the network before this project, Timon of Athens.

Michael Bogdanov had been tapped to direct the play, but the BBC being the Beeb nixed his modern-dress concept, so he quit and new series producer Jonathan Miller, who had been prepping his Troilus and Cressida, filled in. I don’t know what Bogdanov was thinking. As we’ve seen with–what? 30 plays now–the overriding production concept was neo-Elizabethan presentation. And that’s what Miller gives us. He also gives us a fairly severely trimmed script, especially in the static second half.

If you were expecting some kind of middle-aged, pompous Timon–and after seeing an incredibly spry 72 year-old Anthony Heald in the OSF production earlier this year, I kinda was–you’d be sorely disappointed. Here, we have Jonathan Pryce–then a youthful 34–as a young and thoughtful Timon. In the long first scene, we find him dealing with not-even-starving artists and an old Apemantus. Timon plays to this crowd when negotiating with the old man whose daughter is courted by Timon’s servant; they applaud his resolution despite the old man’s obvious displeasure.

Making the opening scene seem longer is Miller’s decision to make Act One, Scenes One and Two the same sequence (the feast begins immediately). The characterizations revealed in these two scenes are interesting. Norman Rodway’s Apemantus is annoying; his table-mates ignore him, prompting him to rail even more. Pryce’s Timon is socially awkward, almost shy; it’s as if his generosity is an insecure attempt to buy friends. The Flavius here is a stern butler, not some comforting servant.

Timon, in this interpretation, is less sure of his friends. Miller shoots these friend request scenes in a deep focus with much of the action happening far away, with the dialogue almost unheard. Timon’s reaction at the final feast is more measured, less frantic, less railing…at least until the final couplet (according to accounts, Pryce improvised the reaction during shooting).

BBC Timon of Athens
BBC Timon of Athens

The transition to the second half is bizarrely high-contrast, bled of color. It’s not the only thing that bleeds. It’s almost as if Miller loses interest in the play here. He skips Act Four, Scenes One and Two, then later Act Five, Scenes Two and Three. And it’s in this last half that we find Miller’s connection to his originally scheduled Troilus and Cressida. The ruins of Troy he would use in that production make an appearance in the wasteland that Timon inhabits. Even here, Timon’s no crazed ranter and raver. Though many see a link between Timon and Lear, this Timon is more of an Edgar. He’s static, more pathetic. He ends up burying himself, as Flavius–for some inexplicable reason–joins the Army.

It’s these “wth” moments that hurt the production as a whole. But being this is the only game in town–there are no other video versions I’ve found–you should probably take time to check it out if you want to see a production. Just don’t expect to love it…

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