Excitement stirred in my Shakespearean breast as I realised I’ve never seen a production of Timon of Athens before; and, indeed, apart from having read it as part of my degree, me and Timon have never crossed paths since. This new production by the RSC would be the perfect way to rectify this omission.
As far as Shakespearean tragedies go, plot-wise it’s fairly straightforward. Timon, a nobleman of Athens, gives generously to his friends, who in turn fawn on him with flattery in order to be bestowed with even more goodies. When we first meet him, he pays the debt of an unnamed, imprisoned man, so that he may go free. He makes up a dowry so his servant can marry the girl of his dreams. He buys a ghastly painting so as not to upset the talentless artist. This is Timon’s version of a happy state of order. But when the truth emerges that his money has run out, he assumes he can rely on those friends to whom he has shown such generosity, to give some of it back. One good turn deserves another, right? He sends his servants out on a mission of mercy for some cash; but all to no avail. Timon’s orderliness becomes a state of disorder. The moral of the tale? Friendships bought with gold aren’t worth a penny.
Faced with mounting debt and no way of paying it back, he finally realises how everything he has taken for granted, and on which he has based his existence, was all a lie. With a Sweeney Todd-like Epiphany, he invites his “friends” back for one more meal where he suddenly bursts into revengeful violence, and throws scalding water over them all (they used the more visceral and easily recognised blood in this production – we don’t know whose blood it is). Turning his back on mankind, and wishing death and destruction on anyone who gets in his way, he flees for the forest. Lear-like, he camps out and survives on a more vegan lifestyle, whilst continuing his war with his fellow man. Unlike Lear, though, who allows himself to be sheltered and returned to “civilisation”, Timon remains Misanthropos and resists all opportunity to return to Athens.
Timon’s an odd chap in the Shakespearean universe. Hamlet, for example, is liked by his family and friends, but, in return, is rotten to almost all of them. Othello is liked by everyone except Iago, and pays them back by being rotten to everyone except Iago. Lear is liked by most of his followers and family – so he banishes them. Macbeth is universally liked and universally evil. However, Timon is basically disliked. His so-called friends have no time for him in his hour of need, even though he has always treated them with overwhelming generosity, both in gold and in spirit. So when he finds buried gold in the forest (as you do), he sees no value in it for himself; and, after using it to taunt and trick both thieves and followers, ends up giving it to his steward. After that, there’s nothing left for him to do. Perhaps it’s no surprise he’s the only Shakespearean character (I think?) to announce his own, premeditated, suicide.
It’s definitely a game of two halves; the programme discusses that the reason might be because the play is thought to have been written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, who may have been responsible for the Athenian scenes of wealth and society. The final acts, set in the forest, have Shakespeare written all over them. It was probably written about the same time as Macbeth, but lacks that play’s dramatic intensity, basically taking one theme and doing it to death. Still, it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see the play, and Simon Godwin’s vision for this enjoyable production dwells on the contrasts between lavish Athens and brutal forest survival.
On arrival in the auditorium you are met with servants laying out a gracious banquet, and there’s gold as far as the eyes can see. Gold chairs, gold table, gold wall-hangings; when guests start to arrive, they are wearing gold suits, gold pyjamas, gold coats. A gold sheet is draped across the front of the painting; the jeweller teases us with some magnificent gold bling. When Kathryn Hunter’s Timon (yes, Timon is female in this production) makes an entrance in a stunning gold evening dress, you expect her to burst into a Shirley Bassey rendition of Goldfinger. Gorgeous Greek-style orchestrations from the musicians up above drift down and give you a vision of golden sunshine and golden beaches. We’re talking serious gold here. The later arrival of the creditors, all dressed in harsh, comfortless black, announces an end to the golden lifestyle, and, indeed, when Timon next appears, her golden dress has been muted to a (nevertheless still stunning) darker creation with only some little highlights of gold flashing in it. Very nice work from designer Soutra Gilmour there.
The Royal Shakespeare Company are never ones to shy away from a theatrical challenge – which is one of the things I most love about them – so this Timon has a number of roles which would traditionally be played by men, performed by women . Not only Timon herself, but the revolutionary Alcibiades, whose forces discover Timon in the forest, and Apemantus the philosopher. Flattering Lord Lucius becomes Lucia, and servant Flaminius is Flaminia. In its original version, Timon of Athens is incredibly male-oriented, so these changes create a much more realistic environment of both rich and poor lifestyles today. Another fiddle with the original text that works brilliantly well is having the three scenes where Timon’s servants chase up money from the “friends”, cut together so that they all appear on stage at once – an Alan Ayckbourn, How The Other Half Loves moment. Not only does it save time, it triples the impact.
A question I must ask myself: why have I never seen Kathryn Hunter on stage before? She’s superb. A pocket-sized dynamo who lends herself so convincingly to the opulence of those early acts and the wretchedness of the later scenes. She has an extraordinarily expressive voice, like a mix of yogurt and honey, that flows mellifluously until she peppers it with some staccato delivery that stops the audience in their tracks. She got a huge laugh for her one word: “oh!” when she first sets eyes on the ghastly painting. She had to briefly stop the show when one audience member laughed so much at her “would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” because Ms Hunter gave the line such unexpected power. A physically demanding performance, full of emotion and a fine balance between comedy and tragedy; you couldn’t take your eyes off her.
There’s great support from the fully committed cast; I particularly enjoyed Debbie Korley’s warrior-like Alcibiades and Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic Apemantus, who both put the pressure on Timon to examine herself and mend her ways. Patrick Drury’s steward Flavius hit the perfect note between obsequiousness and genuine warmth for his mistress, and there were some terrific characterisations from Anton Cross’ hapless thief, James Clyde’s self-centred Sempronius, Sagar I M Arya’s chancer of a painter and Ralph Davis’ wannabe Machiavellian poet.
If you’re thinking that Timon of Athens is probably some minor work and you should save your Shakespearean pennies for better known plays, think again. This production is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and features a stand-out lead performance. It’s on at Stratford until 22nd February and I wholeheartedly recommend it!
Production photos by Simon Annand