What: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare
Where: The Swan Theatre @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
When: 13th December 2018
It has been a strange year for the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It just got stranger. Their take on – should I say adaptation of Timon of Athens – is an unusual one. And that is to say something quite remarkable because this play is seldom performed.
The RSC has spent all of 2018 switching genders and sexualities in their productions but they have never pushed the envelope quite as far as they have in Timon of Athens. We have had male characters becoming female in the casts of Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida and elsewhere. But here in a play which is even less well known to the general populace than Troilus and Cressida, appreciation of the play is made difficult by virtually all the leading male characters being played by women and the character themselves being portrayed as female. And so, Lord Timon becomes Lady Timon and so forth…
The play itself is not difficult to follow in its own right. Timon is generous to a fault to his hangers-on and followers. When the coffers are empty, the friends fail to reciprocate and Timon cannot meet his obligations. He flees to the woods outside of Athens and begins to hate mankind. Ironically, digging for roots in the forest, he finds a casket of gold. The two important supporting characters are Apemantus, a philosopher who critiques Timon’s lifestyle long before he realises his failings, and Alcibiades who would seem to love Timon but rejects Athens and its values. Athens, meanwhile, is rotten to the core. There is great symbolism in the fact that the loving Timon is driven out from the city that compares to the Easter symbolism of Jesus being crucified outside of the city of Jerusalem that had rejected his teaching and values. Finally, Timon commits suicide, somewhere off-stage. The play should be a profound critique of a patriarchal society which has lost its golden era and lost its way.
A great essay and appreciation of the three principle characters can be found in the collection by G. Wilson Knight, “The Wheel of Fire”.
This production (aside from the gender changing) must have involved some interesting choices. Kathryn Hunter is cast in the role of (Lady) Timon. Her track record with the RSC is not a good one. A few years ago, she was cast as a decidedly odd Cleopatra in “Antony and Cleopatra” and as a much better Fool in King Lear. She quit the company before the run was complete, leaving a stand-in to fulfil the roles at very short notice. Taking her on again for the lead role was a brave step indeed. Having said that, her physical language and body work (with the exception of a strange dancing scene where she ends up atop a table) is very good indeed. But her voice, which might be described as oily and lugubrious, to my ears sometime loses the end or the middle of lines as she places great emphasis elsewhere.
The female Apemantus, played by Nia Gwynne, is an interesting one. Unlike most of the rest of the cast who attends (but does not feast at Timon’s banquets), she is not dressed in gold coloured clothing. Her heart is in a different place. She is dressed wrapped in a “Meat is Murder” t-shirt, depicting the cover of that album by The Smiths. Her pronouncements (particularly in the first half of the production) are handled extremely well by Ms Gwynne. Indeed, if hers had been the only character exchanged male-for-female then it would have been a suitable assessment of the patriarchal Athens I mentioned earlier – not quite necessary but worthwhile. As it is some of the strength of the role is wasted in the second half when she enters into a farcical food-fight with Lady Timon.
Alcibiades, played by Debbie Korley, is given an edited script and the importance of Alcibiades to the play is virtually lost. The character becomes a cartoon revolutionary followed by sloganeering and sign-waving protesters, some of who descend from the ceiling of the stage on ropes.
None of these “revolutionary” ideas are at all new to the last 5 years or so of the RSC’s work. They use them again and again. And here they have a quality which would have been more at home in an Am-Dram company than amongst the professional work of the most important Shakespearean company in the world.
Patrick Drury playing Flavius is the most often seen male actor in the production and ironically, given the rest of the casting, is the best thing that this current version of the play has to offer.
Ralph Davis as the poet, Sagar I M Arya as the painter and Zainab Hasan as a jeweller (all chief amongst those taking advantage of Timon) are good and lead to much that is entertaining before the interval.
So, Simon Godwin has given us a peculiar and odd production. When a play like “Romeo and Juliet” which is well known to its audience is presented, then playing around with genders and sexualities might serve a point – although I can’t see that this year’s production had any merit in that regard. When something as obscure as “Timon of Athens” is changed so radically I think it is only a recipe for confusion. Timon is playing in the comparatively small Swan Theatre while an adaptation of Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” has claimed its big sister Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This is press night and I am in the second row of the stalls sitting next to my good friends Mr Empty-Seat, Mrs Empty-Seat and Ms Empty-Seat (I am not sure about those genders, so don’t quote me on that). This production has some good performances, but I suspect they are lost in the mess of the direction, some bizarre dancing scene, a food-fight, and other novelties.
Like the gold box that (Lady) Timon discovers after the interval, we get to see something glowing as if faraway but never really get to see and appreciate the play’s true contents.