This was my very first taste of Shakespeare’s collaborative city comedy/ tragedy and so I entered the Swan Theatre in the knowledge that Timon of Athens is a play about money but with no other preconceptions. As one of the least well-known or studied plays of Shakespeare’s First Folio, Timon of Athens combines Middleton’s talent for satirical comedy with Shakespeare’s penchant for poetic tragedy. This RSC production, directed by Simon Godwin, plays with that comedy brilliantly but perhaps falls short of the mark where the tragedy is concerned.
Timon is both inordinately wealthy and disastrously generous. The frequent asides delivered throughout the first half, foreshadowing her downfall were unnecessary as the precariousness of her position due to her trust in the loyalty and friendship of her beneficiaries was evident from the start. The production design (undertaken by Soutra Gilmour) takes a very simplistic, yet effective stance on the portrayal of opulence, luxury and greed: gold. During the pre-set, the stage boasted a long gold table surrounded by gold chairs, on a gold floor in front of a gold backdrop. The city residents and Lady Timon’s so called “friends” were also all adorned in gold: a gold snakeskin suit, gold shirt, bejewelled golden belt and golden slippers. In hindsight, maybe this choice was a little obvious and unexciting but it certainly made for a rich spectacle.
“undeniably threatening, dangerous and poised to topple”
The most impressive thing about this production is without doubt Kathryn Hunter’s performance as the Lady Timon. Infinitely watchable, precise and fluid in her movements, Hunter drew every eye to her; responding to the audience’s vocalisations with clear delight and exuding a presence unmatched by any other company member. However, the second element of this production that pleased and impressed me was the pre-set and opening. Timon’s servants laid the table for the banquet whilst welcoming the audience into the space as honoured guests, people were greeted with smiles, waves and handshakes and even taken onto the stage for a dance so that the atmosphere of celebration was instantly established. Sweets and fruit were offered around the front rows. Most importantly, this connection with the audience was not abandoned at the commencement of the play proper. The artists vying for Timon’s bounty used the intimate thrust stage of the Swan Theatre to include the audience in their discussion.
The world created on stage was undeniably threatening, dangerous and poised to topple but its pleasures were simultaneously all too tempting. My only real disappointment lay in the more tragic and powerful moments. After the hypocrisy of the rich city dwellers I found it difficult to fully engage and believe in the emotions of Timon and her trusted Steward Flavius (played by Patrick Drury as both unassuming and honourable). Perhaps textual cuts or the disjointed structure of the play are partly to blame. I just wish I could have really felt the grief of Timon’s betrayal and the anguish in her bitterness towards humanity. Hunter’s Timon was sarcastic and razor-sharp in wit but rarely showed true vulnerability making her occasionally difficult to read however likeable and pitiable she was.
Greece plays a prominent role throughout this production. But this is not the cultured and sophisticated Ancient Greece so admired by artists, this is a corrupt and broken Greece sinking in debt and greed. The music was beautiful and powerful and perfectly suited the other artistic choices. Dunia Botic’s hypnotic voice cut through the visual splendour with feeling, underlining the tragedy to come. Many parallels could be drawn between Timon of Athens and King Lear, both protagonists fail to recognise the loyalty of their closest advisors or the truths told to them by their fools (the philosopher Apemantus played by Nia Gwynne in Timon), wealth is exchanged for poverty and both tragedies result in death from a broken heart. Shakespeare’s writing is evident in Timon’s dramatic exit, writing her own epitaph to be discovered next to her body.
Despite a uniformly strong performance from the supporting cast and an outstanding turn from Hunter, there remained elements of the production that confused rather than clarified the plot. Two lycra-clad dancers bearing an abstract geometric rendering of a dog’s head joined the stylised banquet. If there was symbolism in this decision, it was lost on me. The revolutionary mob threatening the state seemed quite tame and any threat appeared easily dissolved.
Timon of Athens feels like an apt companion show to A Christmas Carol (currently performing next door in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). On a festive night at the RSC, one stage presents and condemns the miser whilst the other exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the sponger. Lady Timon’s misplaced confidence that she is ‘wealthy in [her] friends’ (2.2.191) is a truth only realised by Scrooge at the end of A Christmas Carol.
Even if Timon of Athens isn’t as golden as its set, the RSC has curated a show that feels coherent and thematically purposed as an exploration of greed and wealth which is especially poignant at this time of year and worth watching for Hunter’s performance alone, despite the flaws found in the artistic choices regarding its wider presentation.
Timon of Athens runs at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until 22nd February 2019. Tickets can be purchased here.
Image: Simon Annand (c) RSC