Theatre review: Timon of Athens

Simon Button

If, as scholars attest, Timon of Athens is one of Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays then the new Royal Shakespeare Company production solves all its problems. Briskly paced and bitterly funny, it’s a vibrant theatrical event that, despite being written in the early 1600s, has a surprising resonance.

Believed to have been penned by Shakespeare in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, the play is considered problematic because of its unfinished feel, the way it veers wildly from tragedy to comedy and how swiftly its hero falls from riches into rags.

But, revising it for the RSC for the first time since 2006, director Simon Godwin balances everything beautifully as he sets it in a modern-day version of Greece that’s initially drenched in gold, then becomes mired in poverty, pain and social unrest - poignantly mirroring not just the country’s recent financial woes but also this year’s Paris protests, Trump’s presidency and the ever-widening gap between the haves and have-nots.

Godwin has also swapped Timon’s gender. The wealthy Athenian is now a Lady, not a Lord, and she’s played with dazzling brilliance by Kathryn Hunter. The director has said there aren’t enough parts in the Shakespeare canon for older women, thus he’s keen that traditionally male roles should be available to actresses like Hunter.

He was also keen to work with the Greek-born, RADA-trained actress and you can see why. Known for her very physical performances, she hurls herself into Lady Timon - generous and jubilant in the first act, clawing at the earth and fighting her foes in the second.

"Hunter delivers a blackly comic masterclass whilst tearing at the heartstrings."

Act One begins with the cast handing out Turkish delight and grapes to the audience as they file in, then the story starts with Timon throwing a lavish dinner party. Hunter revels in the character’s generosity, although she soon pays the price: a few scenes later and she’s squandered all her wealth. Her supposed friends refuse to help her so she throws another party, this time serving up vengeance.

I won’t spoil things by saying what’s in the bowls Timon lays before her guests, but it’s gruesome and shocking. And Hunter’s switch from genial to vengeful hostess is terrifying.

Act Two finds Timon living in the woods and living off the land. It’s basically a series of rants against Athens, greed, materialism and those who have wronged her, which is a bit jarring after the rich character interplay that precedes it.

Shakespeare and Middleton (if he did indeed have a hand in writing the play) feed her line after vicious line and there’s a danger of it all becoming a bit strained, like a tirade of one-liners in search of a plot. But with her tremendously deep and raspy voice and her fierce physicality Hunter delivers a blackly comic masterclass whilst tearing at the heartstrings.

The production is playing in the RSC’s relatively intimate Swan Theatre, which adds to the vibrancy - as do the Grecian music and dance routines, the vocals of Dunia Botic and designer Soutra Gilmour’s use of gold and silver amidst blacks and whites.

The supporting players are all superb and they’re an energetic ensemble, revelling in the revelry of rich living and storming the barricades in angry protest. It’s as if they’re feeding off the energy of their leading lady - a powerhouse performer who makes this Timon fierce, funny and fully three-dimensional.

Problem solved.

Timon of Athens is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon until 22nd February 2019. You can visit the RSC website for more information on the production and show times and to watch the trailer.