TIMON OF ATHENS
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 2nd January, 2019
Simon Godwin’s new production of the rarely-presented ‘problem play’ is an accessible fable, due to some judicious cutting and reframing of scenes, and simple staging. It’s a game of two halves: the first is all gold and opulence, as though Timon’s interior designer was King Midas – even the flower arrangement is gold – with the stage dominated by a long banqueting table around which Timon entertains her guests, lavishing gift upon gift upon them, as suits her whim; the second half is dirt and darkness, with Timon now living rough in the woods, spurning all comers and railing against the world, like a mini King Lear.
In the title role, the formidable Kathryn Hunter gives a compelling performance. Her Lady Timon is a silent-movie diva, every expression writ large on her face, every gesture stylised and mannered – although she is far from silent. She spouts some of Shakespeare’s most acidic, misanthropic lines with relish. Hunter’s performance style sets her character apart from the others, as befits the action of the play. She is supported by a strong ensemble who breathe life and credibility into shallow, one-note characters. (The blame for any shortcomings in the text is usually laid at the door of Shakespeare’s collaborator, Thomas Middleton!)
Chief among the supporting roles is Patrick Drury’s Flavius, Timon’s faithful steward. In one of the piece’s most touching scenes, he shares the contents of his purse with his fellow, newly-unemployed servants. It is the servants who display the best aspects of humanity: Salman Akhtar’s Lucilius, Rosy McEwen’s Flaminia, and Riad Richie’s Servilius.
Lady Timon’s guests, moochers and hangers-on display the worst aspects, leaching away at the good lady’s generosity until the well runs dry. We see through them at once. Ralph Davis’s poet and Sagar I M Arya’s painter, might be excused for seeking the patronage of a wealthy woman, but Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaner) and Sempronius (James Clyde) soon prove themselves to be fair-weather friends. These moments, with Godwin cross-cutting between scenes of refusal, are handled with humour – there are plenty of laughs to be had throughout, as we are invited to examine the scenario from a distance rather than empathise with the personas.
A dissonant voice comes from the mighty Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic philosopher, Apemantus, and not just because of the Welsh accent. Gwynne and Hunter share the finest scene of the piece in which Apemantus and Timon trade eloquently vicious insults, descend into name-calling and end up displaying the play’s strongest instance of fellow-feeling. It is powerful stuff.
With its up-to-date references (Alcibiades’s mob are sporting the latest Paris fashion, the ubiquitous yellow vest) and a strongly Grecian feel (Michael Bruce’s jaunty, stirring score), there are parallels being drawn with certain countries in the European Union, but I am tempted to consider the production is a more direct meditation on our own situation. The first half is a Leaver’s vision of the EU, with all and sundry happy to bleed us (Timon) dry, while the second act is a Remainer’s nightmare of the UK post-Brexit: alone, hateful and bitter, scrabbling in the dirt for sustenance!
What I can’t help thinking is that Will must have had his father in mind during the writing of this play. John Shakespeare spent his latter years as a recluse, hiding from his creditors; perhaps there is something of his nature in Timon’s bitter barbs.
An amusing, provocative production, rich with ideas and excellently presented, this is a timely Timon that reminds us that human nature is immutable and inequality is still very much with us.