Over the past weekend I’ve been from one extreme to the other where Shakespeare’s plays are concerned. On Saturday I went over to Stratford to see the RSC’s current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, which has had great reviews and which two friends had already seen and come home raving about. I suppose I should have recognised that that was setting me up for a fall because,although I did enjoy it, I wasn’t completely convinced. As the poster shows, it was a modern dress production, set among the county set. Modern dress productions don’t bother me at all if they bring something new to my understanding of the play, or if they throw a light on some current political or social situation, but this didn’t do either. This won’t make sense to anyone other than my UK readers, but I felt as though I was watching a Channel 4 soap opera and that isn’t a genre to which I would go if I was looking for an insightful examination of some particular societal concern, past or present.
To be fair, any production of Merry Wives is likely to be on a hiding to nothing where I’m concerned because I had the good(?) fortune to see the definitive interpretation the summer I was nineteen, when Terry Hands staged it at Stratford. I can’t read the play without re-experiencing every nuance of that performance, which featured that supreme actor, Ian Richardson, as Ford. That was an Elizabethan Merry Wives and brought out the extreme dis-ease between the old nobility and the new phenomenon of the rising middle-class. The latter were becoming increasingly important in England at this time and were tentatively beginning to challenge the notion that the aristocracy automatically had the right to demand whatever they wanted. The added tension which that brought to the play gave the production a bite which I felt this more recent one lacked. I know it is never going to be seen as one of Shakespeare’s more profound works, but I think it has more about it than simply a merry Christmas romp.
However, yesterday was a different matter altogether. Yesterday, as a birthday present, a friend took me to see the National Theatre’s Timon of Athens, which was showing as part of the National Theatre Live programme, whereby they stream live performances of their shows to cinemas all over the world. Watching Timon of Athens, as miserable and despondent a play as you could ever wish to encounter, might not seem like the best of ways to spend one’s birthday, but this was no ordinary Timon; this was Timon with Simon Russell Beale in the title role and this was magnificent. I had to be almost forcibly removed from my seat at the end so riveted was I by what the production had to say not only about the play, but also about Shakespeare’s company and the way it was working at the time it was written.
As you will see, this was also a modern dress production. Who could resist that in a time of banking crisis and monetary meltdown? When this Timon has his breakdown and leaves his world of sycophantic followers behind him, he goes out not into a wood but into the world of the city’s homeless, brushing shoulders with members of the Occupy group that gathered outside St Paul’s last year protesting about the profligate ways of those at the top of large financial institutions. There must have been a temptation to actually set it in Athens given the situation in Greece at the moment, but while it is called Timon of Athens there is little doubt that Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, who co-authored this play, had Jacobean London in mind. Middleton, after all, was best noted for his city comedies which set out to lay bare the follies of the people in the very audiences for which they were written. Given that this production was mainly staged for a London audience, the parallels are obvious.
Russell Beale’s performance was quite simply stunning, but what struck me most as I watched this play was the evidence it provides for what was going on in Shakespeare’s company at the time he was writing it. As I said, this is a co-authored text and probably only an incomplete sketch for a play that may never have actually got onto the stage. I haven’t done the research to back up my speculations, but my feeling is that Shakespeare and Middleton had got as far as drafting out the plot line and Middleton had had a go at writing the first half, up to the point where Timon invites his false friends to a dinner (in this production) of dog turds. I think that is when Shakespeare took over. I suspect he wasn’t that interested in Timon when he was on the up. What interested him (and remember he is writing Lear at about the same time) was what happens to him psychologically when his world begins to fall apart. This is when the verse changes. This is where you hear the great soaring speeches that you associate with Lear on the blasted heath. And, this is where you get a long two-hander between Timon and the cynically philosopher, Apermantus.
I hadn’t thought about it before, but Apermantus would almost certainly have been written for Robert Armin, the actor who joined the company in the late 1590s to play the fool’s parts after Will Kemp left so abruptly. Kemp had been a slapstick, acrobatic type of actor, a Nick Bottom or a Dogberry. The first parts that Armin would have played were Touchstone and Feste. You can see the difference.
Armin was an extremely intelligent man. By the time he joined the company he had already written his initial treatise on the art of fools, Foole upon Foole, and would go on to write a second, A Nest of Ninnies, published in 1608. He and Shakespeare had a symbiotic relationship. You only have to look at the parts Shakespeare wrote for him, culminating in the remarkable Lear’s Fool, to see how much the playwright was influenced by the understanding of the psychological role of the fool that Armin brought to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. However, if you compare the first edition of Foole upon Foole with the revised version Armin published some years later, you can also see how he has learnt from Shakespeare and how his own perception has developed and deepened through the time spent in the playwright’s sphere.
What struck me yesterday was that the long scene which Timon and Apermantus share is probably the most sustained exploration of the role of the fool in exposing the folly of others that Shakespeare ever wrote. And, watching Simon Russell Beale and Hilton McRae probe and challenge each other’s positions, I felt as if I what I was actually watching was not two twenty-first century actors, nor two cynical and disillusioned characters, but rather Shakespeare and Armin themselves, exploring and dissecting the world around them and finding what they saw severely wanting.
You are perfectly at liberty to tell me that I am being fanciful, but I think that when Armin arrived at The Globe, Shakespeare suddenly found himself in the company of a man who had an intellect equal to his own, someone who could challenge him and force him to grow. I hope for both their sakes they were not as worldweary as Timon becomes, but I also hope that they each found in the other someone they could call a friend and value as a partner in the type of intellectual debate that leaves you perhaps a little battered but richer in your understanding of the world and the people in it.