One of the most difficult and least-performed of Shakespeare’s plays and one that is now thought to have been a partial collaboration with Thomas Middleton, Timon of Athens has been brilliantly presented by director Simon Godwin. The currently fashionable habit of casting women in major male roles here works powerfully by giving not only the roles of Alcibiades, the revolutionary, and Apemantus, the philosopher, to women, and thus making even more of the social commentary embedded in their parts; but by casting Timon as the Lady Timon in the person of that exceptionally powerful and sensitive actress, Kathryn Hunter. In the first half of the tale, Hunter conveys strongly the sense of a rich person believing she must buy love, thinking that almost insane generosity to the point of self-harm will somehow work as a substitute for real engagement with another and fill the holes in her psyche.
And when she loses her wealth and discovers how shallow, greedy and self-serving most of the hangers on were, how unreliable, how they can so easily betray her, she turns into an almost Lear-like misanthrope.
Hunter herself gave a memorable performance and interpretation as King Lear at the Young Vic some years back, and her performance as Timon – as directed by Godwin – emphasizes the echoes of Lear so clear in the writing of the second half of the play when Timon retreats into his/her hermit-like existence and rails against all mankind. Hunter is both dazzling and sensitive as the rich Timon in the first part; and moving, poignant and harrowing as the angry, betrayed Timon.
Great praise must go to Debbie Korley as Alcibiades, especially in the contemporarily-relevant scenes of the revolution; to Nia Gwynne’s intelligent, troubling interpretation of Apemantius; to all the cast, really, for its exemplary ensemble work, and to the wonderful Dunia Botic as the singer. The original score by Michael Bruce is wonderfully evocative of the mood of both halves of the text and designer Soutra Gilmour has created sets and costumes that perfectly reflect the two different worlds of the play.
Timon is rarely done. It can be difficult; and it can be very static in the wrong hands. This production does it great service. I heard people at the interval saying how glad they were that they had taken the risk to see this one; and that they were now going to go home and read the text with new appreciation.
This is a strong, moving and thought-provoking play that should be done more often and has been given, here, a completely authentic interpretation. Everything about this production is skilled, strong, and apt.
But above all, this production has a memorable Kathryn Hunter for whose nuanced, powerful performance alone it would be worth a trip to Stratford.
- By William Shakespeare with Thomas Middleton
- Directed by Simon Godwin
- Music by Michael Bruce
- Cast includes: Kathryn Hunter, Debbie Korley, Nia Gwynne, Patrick Drury, Riad Richie, Salman Akhtar, David Sturzaker, Sagar I M Arya
- Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
- Until 22nd February 2019