Technology, Social Media & Money: The Meaning of True Friendship in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens

Dinner at the home of Timon. Pictured left to right: Michael Dix Thomas, Sean Fri, Kathryn Tkel, Ian Merrill Peakes (center, as Timon), Andhy Mendez, Louis Butelli, and Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (with Eric Hissom top left). Timon of Athens is on stage at Folger Theatre, May 9 — June 11, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

There is a niche fad in the theatre community in which fans of a particular playwright make it a goal to see every single one of the author’s plays staged professionally. Known as “completists,” they travel around the country — if not countries — to check off every production.

This month, Shakespeare completists will have the opportunity to cross off one of the more difficult plays to see. In collaboration with the European Month of Culture, the Folger Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library presents Timon of Athens, a rarely-staged tragedy that tells the story of a man whose vice is his generosity. And while Timon’s uncommon staging is an obvious draw for theatre-goers in general, attendees of this particular production will be treated to a unique performance — one that appeals to a modern audience.

“It’s Shakespeare for the 21st century,” explains Robert Richmond, director of Timon, which is his eighth production with the Folger. “It’s a time that we’re familiar with, but not exactly right here and right now.” Citing the popular television show Black Mirror as a source of inspiration, Richmond has incorporated technology and social media to place a tone-of-today on the play’s commentary of the often-artificial nature of friendship.

Vendors demanding debts to be paid by Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes, center) in Shakespeare’s social satire Timon of Athens. On stage at Folger Theatre, May 9 — June 11, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

“The play is about a man who does not know what true friendship is,” he says, hinting at the negative effect social media has had on the perception of what it means to be ‘liked’ in today’s society. “It’s an addiction. It’s a drug that we’ll be writing plays about in the future. I look at how people react to social media, and see the terrible tizzy that they get themselves into when someone has or hasn’t ‘liked’ something…we are living in an age where your friends aren’t really friends at all.”

However, social media is not the only addiction that Timon casts commentary on. “The play (also) shows the evil that money can cause,” Richmond explains. “We are living in an age where your wealth is the thing by which you are defined.”

Yet just as was the case with friendship, such wealth is not conceived in a traditional way, either. “Money isn’t money anymore,” Richmond describes, referencing mobile apps such as Venmo and PayPal. “The ability for you to move funds around quickly means real money is never touched these days.” And, as is the case in Timon, and his undying generosity, this ease in transferability can quickly lead to one’s downfall in a society that is “conditioned to overspend.”

“Undone by goodness.” Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes) acknowledges the irony of discovering gold in his secluded cave in Shakespeare’s tragic satire Timon of Athens. On stage at Folger Theatre, May 9 — June 11, 2017. Photo by Teresa Wood.

Richmond asserts that the cosmopolitan nature of the play underscores the reality that these addictions are not restricted to one particular culture. “It’s has the United Colors of Benetton sense — a feeling for being global,” he says. “It’s set in a cosmopolitan center, with influences coming from the north, east, west, and south.” The international feel of this staging of Timon shows that the issues caused by money and social media are indeed a global addiction.

And while the themes of the play are universal, the author of the play has also played an active role in bridging the cultures of Europe and the United States.

“Culturally, we share a fascination with Shakespeare because of the humanity that both Europe and America support,” Richmond says. “Shakespeare was a humanist. He was successful at selling his material to the aristocracy and the common man.” This eternal love and relatability has allowed the themes of the playwright’s work to infiltrate the majority of theatre that is produced today.

“Of all the modern plays I get to do or read,” Richmond concludes, “I always find myself thinking there’s a Shakespeare play that has already dealt with this idea.

Written by EUintheUS intern Travis Smith.

The Folger’s production of Timon of Athens will run throughout the duration of the European Union Month of Culture and through June 11th, with tickets available for purchase here.

Meanwhile, we are excited to announce several European Month of Culture events taking place at the Folger, in partnership with British Embassy Washington D.C., including Painting Shakespeare, Free Folger Friday, a Pre-Show Talk featuring Folger Shakespeare Library Director Michael Witmore, and a reading of “New Boy,” Tracy Chevalier’s re-telling of Shakespeare’s Othello. For more information on Timon of Athens and to see all events, click here.

Now in its fifth year, the European Month of Culture (EUMC) is a month-long festival of innovative and creative events for the American public highlighting the diverse cultures of all 28 European Union Member countries. Enjoy film, dance, music, theatre, exhibits, language classes, workshops and more in great venues throughout Washington DC. Most events are free! To see all EUMC events, click here.