Lady Timon (Kathryn Hunter) is a wealthy hostess in Athens, famed for her generosity. And she certainly seems to be the bee’s knees. Her guests gush about her: the connoisseur of art and other finer things in life, the provider of countless glorious feasts, the philanthropist who keeps her pockets open—very open—when it comes to helping out a friend in need, or anyone who cares to ask.
This is how we first meet her, shrouded in a gilded cloud filled with flattery and falsehood, from certain friends each desiring a piece of her—well, a piece of her checkbook at least; after all, she never seems to think twice before bestowing another fortune unto the poet who’s just composed another piece of drivel, the painter who’s just presented her with another mediocre hodgepodge of colors, or the jeweler who’s unboxed another gaudy bauble to go with her golden smock, which matches the rest of her décor to a T.
Hunter is a marvel in this defining role, magnetically charming both at the height of her fortune, as well as when she’s digging up roots, wearing something resembling a potato sack, and peeing on stage into a bucket (much props to Christopher Shutt’s sound design).
Everyone around Timon seems to bathe in her goodwill as though they’re entitled to this never-ending stream of unquestioning patronage—in fact, within the first few minutes of the play, her money has managed to buy happiness, respect, freedom (she bailed someone out of jail), and even love (when one of her manservants wants to marry one of her guests’ daughter)! All hail the omnipotent Timon (and her inexhaustible bank account)—all except Apemantus (a marvelously smarmy Arnie Burton, who makes clever choices with the perfect level of constraint), the “churlish philosopher” (as the character is called in some versions of the play), who would only eat roots and drink water (from a reusable water bottle he carries around no less). Think a hipster millennial with an agenda attending a boomer party, when every behavior could be conceived as a protest.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Timon of Athens. It was actually my introduction to Shakespeare, if you don’t count The Lion King as a version of Hamlet. I was 8 years old, noodling around my parents’ study, marveling at the bookcases that surrounded the room; I pulled out a small booklet and on its cover in block print, it read Timon of Athens (or the Chinese translation of the title, to be accurate). I read the whole thing in one sitting; I didn’t understand it at all but fell in love with it nonetheless. I have returned to it many times, after the English language has become more of a way of life, and have continued to sigh at how relevant this (somewhat satirical) tale is during times of class warfare throughout history. And since class warfare has never truly gone away, this play remains relevant today. What also remains timeless are the falsehoods of the parasitical guests and their fickle hearts so easily steered by money. Case in point: when Lady Timon’s spending habit finally catches up with her, none of those loyal friends is willing to give her a loan, which brings Timon down to bankruptcy and off to the woods she goes.
Unfortunately, very rarely does this glorious play get mainstream attention; in fact, many seasoned theatre pals of mine haven’t ever read or seen it before. So the bottom line is, I am simply grateful for this production. In director Simon Godwin’s version, Timon of Athens has a fresh twenty-first-century aesthetic (the outrageously gorgeous costumes and set by Soutra Gilmour have a transformative quality that aids the flow of the production) as well as an exciting rhythm that sustains the Shakespearean poetry but also invites a modern tone. The use of the space also adds to the atmospheric effect of the production, with audience members seated right up across the T-shaped stage.
If there’s one thing that made me slightly itchy, it was perhaps one too many special gestures in this production, which makes some of the moments more gimmicky; the power of simplicity was somewhat sacrificed.
One might compare this RSC production to the much-praised one at the Public in 2011, directed by the magnificent Barry Edelstein with Richard Thomas in the titular role. Fortunately, their approaches are different enough that there isn’t much of a “better” or “worse”. I remember the smell of dirt and the visceral feeling I got from this satirical tragedy. I remember the Public’s production being more earnest, as opposed to this more stylized one we can check out right now.
Something of immediate importance in the year 2020 is how Timon illuminates the utter, almost comical divide between the rich and the poor. The pre-revolution Greece the play is set in and the world we live in today seem eerily similar, which makes you pause and consider: Are we yet again primed for a revolution? The play might seem to offer a cautionary tale about Timon: thou shall not spend your fortune blindly on false people! Indeed her tragedy results from her inability to differentiate between love and dependence. But the fall of Timon is not the only tragedy we need to face. In fact, Timon seems to care very little about money itself. But the one-percenters who swarm around a source of wealth be warned, for when it all falls down, the Apemantuses of the world can still survive on roots and plain water.