Tag Archives: Kathryn Hunter

Timely in 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.

Timon of Athens production photographs_ 2018_2018_Photo by Simon Annand _c_ RSC_269096

Lady Bountiful: Kathryn Hunter as Timon, with Patrick Drury as Flavius and Nia Gwynne as Apemantus (Photo: Simon Annand)





“This great stage of fools”


The DOOR, Birmingham REP, Tuesday 4th November, 2014 

In real life, actor Edward Petherbridge suffered a stroke while rehearsing to play King Lear in New Zealand.  Not the most humorous subject for a play, you might think, but this new production from Told By An Idiot is gloriously funny and not shy of revelling in silliness.

A two-hander it features Petherbridge himself as himself and Paul Hunter as everyone else, making use of unconvincing wigs and even worse accents.  Utilising some traditional mechanics of stagecraft (a thunder sheet, a wind drum, a trap door) the play evokes not only scenes from Lear but Petherbridge’s theatrical and personal memories,  There are some cheerfully unsubtle plugs for his autobiography (available in the foyer!) and some frame-breaking asides that enhance the artificiality and theatricality of the piece.  Events are not played out chronologically but a picture builds of the actor’s life and experiences.  Petherbridge is both vulnerable and commanding while Hunter has never been better – he is a mass of comic energy from his Cherman achsunt to his wicked personation of Laurence Olivier.

It’s almost non-stop larks but there is also a thread of mortality running through it.  Like Shakespeare’s great work, the play is about frailty and the deterioration of the mind but, unlike the eponymous king, Petherbridge is a survivor.  He has recovered not only to tell his story but to crawl around under the stage and generally chuck himself around a bit.  This autobiography speaks to us all: a stroke need not be the end of one’s personality, identity or indeed one’s active life.  Director Kathryn Hunter handles the energy and the abrupt changes of time and location with the skill of a plate-spinner.

Gloriously silly, often touching but never less than intelligent, My Perfect Mind is one of those rare and remarkable pieces of theatre you never want to end.

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge engage in some admirable fooling

Paul Hunter and Edward Petherbridge engage in some admirable fooling

Into The Valley


Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 11th June, 2014


Alarm bells are always set ringing whenever I see in the programme that the director (in this case the legendary Peter Brook) has written a ‘statement of intent’. I’m a firm believer in the idea of a play speaking for itself and so, joke’s on you Mr Brook, I haven’t read your statement.

With my internal pretentiousness-ahoy klaxon about to go off big time, I settle in my seat and wait for the show to begin…

Codirected by Brook and Marie-Helene Estienne, this Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production is set in what is by and large an empty space (of course, this being a Peter Brook) with only a few chairs scattered around, a small table, a coat stand… But mainly, there is as little as possible. Three actors and two musicians occupy this space; it begins with each actor taking a turn in a spot of storytelling – something about Persia – but this is only a prelude to the play proper. In this minimalist setting, a naturalistic story unfolds, with narration and sometimes direct audience address. It’s the story of Mrs Costas, a woman with a prodigious memory. She undergoes tests for some scientists and becomes a successful novelty act performer, a la Derren Brown – sort of – but there are problems. She finds she is unable to forget any of the trivial information she memorises for her act. Show business is not the answer – who knew?

As Mrs Costas, the remarkable Kathryn Hunter reconfirms why I hold her in high regard; it’s a much less physical role than, say, Kafka’s Monkey, but no less captivating. She is a magnetic stage presence. Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill play the scientists, Costas’s boss, her agent and so on in a manner that appears effortless, moving from character to character, location to location with clarity and style. Raphael Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori provide an atmospheric musical underscore that enhances the story, filling the empty space with aural colours – this is a play about synaesthesia, after all! – It’s a play about the human mind and the nature of memory and it’s a thoroughly absorbing and involving, small scale piece with big themes – once you get past the opening moments, that is. And it’s funny and accessible with a positive disposition towards human nature.



Old desire doth in his death bed lie

Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 4th October, 2012

What if Romeo and Juliet hadn’t topped themselves? What if they had a long and happy life together? Ben Power’s new play re-invents the tale of the star-cross’d lovers, using Shakespeare’s words. We meet the couple at the end of a long and happy marriage but tragedy stalks them. Juliet has a debilitating and terminal illness. Parting is not only a sweet sorrow but a creeping inevitability.

At first, the play seems a bit of a gimmick. With the script re-mixed, I was distracted by trying to place the lines from the original: which scene is that speech from? Who speaks those lines in the original? But, as the relationship between the two characters is revealed, I became able to sit back and take the play at face value.

Richard McCabe’s Romeo is a lovable old duffer. His raincoat makes him a bit like Graham Lister from Vic & Bob’s Fantasy Island. Beneath that, he sports a brown woollen suit, which, along with his hair and specs, adds to his nutty professor appearance. He shows people on the front row a photograph in his wallet and takes us back to a time before Juliet became bedridden with illness to a time when they would go dancing.

Kathryn Hunter’s Juliet is a bright-eyed little thing, retaining a girlish sense of fun in her later years. Hunter uses her remarkable physicality as a performer to portray Juliet’s decline. Their dancing becomes the daily routine of the carer and the cared-for; the actions speak at least as loudly as the famous words.

Lines like “I have forgot why I did call thee back” take on a new significance as Juliet begins to wane. She reveals, using a speech of the Nurse’s, that they had and lost a child. This speech is later repeated as Juliet succumbs to dementia and delirium. Hunter’s performance is powerful and striking, matched by McCabe’s patient and doting husband, his frustration and his anger.

They agree that when she is too far gone, he will assist her suicide. Here the herbs and the potion of the original come into (the) play. The morality of their decision and the action taken is not an issue. This is shown to be a private matter, an arrangement between two loved ones, without the brouhaha you would get in an issue-based drama.

Director Helena Kaut-Howson dilutes the encroaching misery with moments of beauty, using music by John Woolf and movement direction by Jane Gibson: withered Juliet springs, in her imagination, from her wheelchair and dances around, full of vigour and life – in her mind at least.

Curiously, the play is depressing and uplifting, often in the same moment. It is grim and heart-warming. It shows there is a kind of plasticity to Shakespeare; you can bend him in order to shed new light on the human condition. The vaguely seashore setting, with only a chair or two and a free-standing door, indicate this is happening nowhere in particular but anywhere and everywhere. This is not a tragedy about a particular couple in a particular set of circumstances. This is the more general tragedy of our mortality. We reach old age if we’re lucky. If we have someone with whom to share our declining years, we are luckier still. But the inevitability of death, that irresistible force of nature – here symbolised by video footage of the sea – is coming for us all.

Going Ape

Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 31st May, 2012

Ah, Kafka! That cheerful blighter who requested that all his unpublished works should be burned after his death. Usually, I agree with this assessment, because I find his stuff a bit grim, to say the least.

This performance – Colin Teevan’s adaptation of the short story,A Report To An Academy – went some way towards making me warm to the cheerless old Czech.

This one-act, one-hander begins with the entrance of “Red Peter”, a “former ape”. In bowler hat and dinner jacket, he looks more like a beetle, bringing to mind perhaps Kafka’s most famous work, Metamorphosis. But unlike Gregor Samsa’s tale of dehumanisation, Red Peter’s story brings us the opposite. Through his lecture, which is interspersed with flashback scenes, he tells a tale of humanisation, how changing his behaviour to fit in with the society that traps him, has led only to alienation from his species and from his true self.

We hear how he was captured on the Gold Coast and transported in chains and close confinement below decks, suffering abuse and deprivation along the way to his new home. This sequence brought to mind the horrors of the slave trade. Red Peter, now ‘civilised’, is neither fish nor fowl. He is not human like the rest of society and neither is he the creature he once was. His assimilation has come at a terrible cost, and he, like Kafka’s other protagonists, is ultimately, totally alone, scarred by experience and mistreatment. There is also the idea that our evolution into an industrialised society goes against what is natural.

So far, so grim.

But the telling of this tale lifts the material into something joyous. Kathryn Hunter astounds as the civilised ape. Impossibly flexible – perhaps she has had her skeleton replaced by rubber bands – extremely expressive, articulate and very funny, she impresses at every moment. For all Red Peter’s eloquence, the beast is never far away. The trappings of civilisation are only a mask for our own animalistic impulses, after all. At under an hour in length, Colin Teevan’s script gets the most out of the source material, but I found myself marvelling at the brilliance of the performance rather than feeling any attachment to the character or being implicated in his plight. Rather, the piece is an intellectual exercise – like any lecture to an academy – that has given rise to the considerations I’ve mentioned here.

The best moments are when Hunter (her name is ironic given the context) goes off script and improvises with victims from the audience, making monkeys of them, so to speak. It is a bravura performance from a unique and brilliant artist.

I only hope for her sake that the I Was A Teenage Werewolf hairdo is a wig.