Outside the city walls, thousands lie destitute and homeless; but inside a cozy estate, a party rages on for the 1%. It is “Athens: Sometime in the Future.” The theater is set up like a sister stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, and gold gleams from every corner as Timon’s banquet, the inaugural scene of Simon Godwin’s Timon of Athens, is prepared. It is simply stunning – but it isn’t until Kathryn Hunter as Timon enters that we realize how captivating a production this will be.
British actor Kathryn Hunter’s illustrious career has seen her take on many of Shakespeare’s best (and notably male) roles, from King Lear to Richard III. But as Timon of Athens – historically a male character, but here stylized as “Lady Timon” – one almost forgets that the part could ever, or should ever have been imagined as anything but a woman. The gender switch illuminates a fascinating and all-too-familiar dynamic: that of a woman living in a man’s world, unable to protect herself from those who would take advantage of her. Lady Timon is a wealthy Athenian noble who is optimistically, extravagantly, and blindly generous. When she must finally face the fact that she spending beyond her means and is deeply in debt, Timon reaches out for help and very quickly learns who her true friends are.
Timon of Athens is one of the lesser-known, lesser performed of the Shakespearean canon – however, when you walk away from this performance, you may find that shocking. In the hands of Kathryn Hunter and Simon Godwin, this play feels achingly relevant. Perhaps the gender switches – which shouldn’t feel like such a noteworthy point, and yet always end up becoming such – have something to do with this.
Hunter brings genuineness, modesty, and a sweetly innocent inner joy to Timon, which is instantly recognizable among the large crowd of her inauthentic flatterers. Though she enjoys her friends’ over-the-top praises of herself, she is no vainglorious attention seeker but rather a woman so full of love that she feels she can never pay it forward. This is touchingly exemplified at the first banquet when Timon begins to cry, saying that “…’tis not enough to give; Methinks I could deal kingdoms to my friends, And ne’er be weary.”
Director Simon Godwin’s lavish and colorful directorial style lends itself beautifully to the Gatsby-esque glamour of Timon’s feasts. The garish gold of the opening banquet gives way to black, as Timon learns how bad her situation is. And then, for Timon’s final dinner party, all the guests are outfitted in stark white. What happens next is at once predictable, and yet jaw-dropping: when the dishes are uncovered, each bowl is full of blood. As the guests sit there, too repulsed to move, Timon dumps blood over her head, and then proceeds to splatter her guests (and their sparkling white outfits) with it. It’s quite a step up from the original text, in which Timon serves her guests stones and warm water. Shakespeare would be jumping for joy at this turn of events.
Godwin also takes full advantage of Hunter’s spectacular physicality throughout, especially in the striking contrast between the elegant, joyous, dancing Timon in Part One and the crouching, crablike hermit Timon in Part Two. And the supporting cast are worthy counterparts to their leading lady. Arnie Burton plays Apemantus, Timon’s beggar-philosopher friend who foresees her downfall, with delicious sarcasm and sass. One of the most memorable few minutes of the show of an extremely physical tussle between Timon and Apemantus. Additionally, Elia Monte-Brown plays Alcibiades (another notable gender switch) with warmth and earnestness. Rather than being styled as a general, per historical precedent, this Alcibiades is something more like a community activist, and her cause is shockingly modern. Outfitted like a militant in dark camo and combat boots, Alcibiades begins the show as a political advocate for the homeless and impoverished. By the end of the show, she is leading a guerrilla rebellion against the nobility of Athens (and probably tweeting “Eat the Rich”). With a quiet but fierce authority, Monte-Brown’s Alcibiades feels revolutionary for more than just her gender.
There is a vulnerability to Hunter’s Timon that never ceases to inspire pity, from the time she is having ballads sung in her honor to her death, draped over the arms of her only true friend like Christ of the Pietà. Timon’s tragedy, as the doom of a woman rather than a man, mirrors a millennia-old societal pattern that sees women being used as objects, women being devalued for having traditionally feminine qualities (Timon’s generosity, affection, kindness) in a world that honors traditionally masculine qualities (ruthlessness, aggression). This Timon of Athens is not only a spectacular revival of an overlooked drama, but an elaborate, stunning lens through which we might evaluate ourselves.
- By William Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, edited by Emily Burns and Simon Godwin
- Directed by Simon Godwin
- Choreographed by Jonathan Goddard
- A Co-Production with Shakespeare Theatre Company in Association with the Royal Shakespeare Company
- Musicians: Christopher Biesterfeldt, Philip Coiro, Joshua Johnson
- Cast includes: Shririne Babb, Arnie Burton, Helen Cespedes, Liam Craig, Zachary Fine, Yonathan Gebeyehu, Kathryn Hunter, Adam Langdon, Kristen Misthopoulos, Elia Monte-Brown, Julia Ogilvie, Daniel Pearce, Dave Quay, John Rothman
- Theatre for a New Audience
- Until 9 February 2020