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The redemptive power of ‘Millions’

2012 November 9

By one of those productive coincidences I saw the final performance of Nicholas Hytner’s shattering Timon of Athens last week and then, two days later, sat down with my grandson and read Frank Cottrell Boyce’s children’s novel Millions from cover-to-cover in a day. The overlap was instructive, most particularly against the background of a US presidential election which had none of the vibrant optimism of the Obama campaign in 2008 which took place before the global financial crisis deflated confidence as well as budgets. The common denominator in all this is money, and the effect it has on our psyche.

Timon of Athens was once described by Frank Kermode as the “poor relation” of Shakespeare’s major tragedies. On the page it reads like an abandoned draft, which is presumably why it is thought never to have been performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime, or indeed much since. By setting his 2012 National Theatre version in the City of London amidst the bling of boom and then the dust of bust Mr Hytner transformed what is usually deemed one of the Bard’s most obscure and difficult works into a parable for our times.

Timon begins like the Prodigal Son dispensing unearned largesse in a whirling world of City crooks, braying bankers, parasitic poets and air-kissing artists. He ends a down and out, pushing a supermarket trolley laden with jetsam, sleeping on cardboard boxes in the street and railing against humankind in general. His sudden death offers the blindness of tragedy rather than the dawning of redemption.

What is striking about his earlier spendthrift philanthropy is that he gives compulsively yet never seems satisfied. And he does it all on what turns out to be credit, underscoring Marx’s reading of the play as an allegory of the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Timon’s clear belief that money can buy friendship, rather than mere fawning, takes us into deeper psychological territory but it ends in a kind of embittered despair.

Frank Cottrell Boyce is more helpful and hopeful. Millions centres round two precocious brothers, Damian and Anthony, who discover a huge stash of banknotes thrown from a train by robbers only days before all stacks of sterling are burned to be replaced by the Euro. The cash comes crashing through the roof of a cardboard hermitage Damian – who is obsessed with saints – has built by the railway line after their mother died. “Have you met a Saint Maureen?” the eight-year-old repeatedly asks the various saintly visions who appear before him. His brother Anthony, aged 11, by contrast, is consumed by consumerism, cash, houses prices, estate agents and the money supply.

But Millions is far cleverer than just setting up a simplistic contrast between God and Mammon. The outcast Timon inveighs wildly and generally against the dehumanising impact of money which perverts and discourages the development of true virtue. In Millions the cash corrupts everyone who allows themselves to be seduced by it. Even the high-minded Mormons on the boy’s estate are toxically tempted to greed when Damian, hearing that they are latter-day saints, pushes thousand of pounds through their letterbox assuming they will use it to help the poor. Money brings out something predatory in us, but in the end we prey on our inner selves.

Yet, redemptorily, the key characters in Millions have, deep inside them, a decency which allows them clear-eyed to pull themselves free of the lure of the lucre. Frank Cottrell Boyce is an altogether more Christian writer than Shakespeare. There may be, he acknowledges, a polarity between spirit and mammon, but there’s a bit of both in all of us – and we can chose between them.

The Church Times

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