If the BBC had not resolved to tape the complete works of William Shakespeare for television, "Timon of Athens" is "the one that might easily have slipped through the net," says Dr. Jonathan Miller at the outset of tonight's three-hour telecast of the play at 8 on Channel 26.
Indeed, "Timon" is a quirky and grating piece of misanthropy, probably never produced during Shakespeare's lifetime and only rarely staged since. Falling neatly -- all too neatly -- into two parts, it shows us Timon (Jonathan Pryce) first as a recklessly generous Athenian lord, indiscriminately extending the treasures of his table and his purse to a bevy of sycophants and "glass-faced flatterers." Then, once he has exhausted his fortune and his friends have deserted him for more fertile marks, we see him as a hermit in the desert. His shoulders have become blistered by the sun and his tongue is swollen with the endless recriminations he hurls at a humanity no better than beasts.
Not to be irreverent, this is Shakespeare's version of the old song, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," delivered with such untempered bile, however, that viewers may find a full three hours' worth hard to bear. The plot is simplicity itself -- an all too predictable cause, followed by a protracted effect. And there is certainly less of Shakespeare's redemptive poetry here than in just about any of his other works.
Still, there are rewards. In the first half, the camera captures fine shades of hypocrisy and paranoia in a gallery of fawning artists and smug noblemen. And once Timon opts for exile in a distant gravel-covered landscape, the play assumes, rather fascinatingly, the bleak contours of a Samuel Beckett opus. Pryce, dewy-eyed and gentle while his money holds out, makes a bold metamorphosis into the bitter, rancid misanthrope. In his final speeches, he is filmed lying on his back in a dark cave. Only his upside-down head is visible. The curious angle suggests that Timon is some strange denizen of the deep, a human eel, perhaps, who has lost none of his lethal venom, only the force to strike the fraudulent hand that offers a semblance of solace.
Of the supporting characters, the most startling by far is Timandra, a bloated, pox-infected camp-follower, who trudges briefly over the gravel on her way to the wars. What is startling is that this puffy doxy, all rouge and grainy white powder, is actually Diana Dors, Britain's answer in the 1950s to Marilyn Monroe. Timon himself would have appreciated the irony.