INTERVIEW: Simon Godwin, RSC director of Timon of Athens

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Director Simon Godwin and actress Kathryn Hunter

Director Simon Godwin has had major successes at the Royal Shakespere Company — with recent productions of Hamlet and Two Gentleman of Verona — here Gill Sutherland asks him how he will bring his magic touch to the rather tricky Timon of Athens, which opens tonight (Thursday) at the Swan Theatre

How have the rehearsals been going?

Good. It’s interesting because it really is a play of two halves – the affluence of the first half and the degradation of the second.
So it’s an interesting schizophrenic process; we’ve just rehearsed the second part and gone back to the first. But as we work on it more and more the experience of those contrasting atmospheres are a clue or a key to the play’s success and impact. We’re making those contrasts as strong as we can.

It’s the second least popular of Shakespeare’s play (according to a YouGov survey, beaten to the bottom by Pericles). So it’s got a bad press, why do you think that is and what merits are you finding in it?

It’s fair to say that it’s not a play that Shakespeare was the sole author of, so I think there are passages and scenes that were probably written by someone else, which explains why the language has an uneven quality.
Also there’s a question mark about ‘the genre’. Shakespeare’s most popular plays are the ones that have a very clear identity – As You Like It, comedy; Romeo and Juliet, tragedy… And Timon of Athens is a black comedy, a tragedy with smiles and people will find it very hard to pigeonhole it, and therefore dismiss it a bit. I think it does also have both a beguiling, uneven yet interesting blend of the very naturalistic, money/city comedy with the parable-like tragic dimension, which is almost like a fairytale – someone in the woods who discovers gold underground. It’s like a bible story, except the character moves from being very open and happy to someone who is deliberately and profoundly misanthropic; which makes it very provocative.
This is perhaps where it’s strength lies. It asks how do we respond to life going wrong? Timon’s response is outrage – which we recognise – and a deep sense that humanity is something to be rejected. So partly the play asks, is pessimism the way forward? And then it has a further twist – behind Timon’s fury she then reaches a sort of post-rage sense of acceptance and that also seems pretty pertinent for today – it’s like we are exhausted by our own anger.

What is your relationship with the play? How did you come to be directing this? And can you recall your first encounter with it?

I’ve never seen it onstage, so that’s a nice place to start, I feel unburdened by history. I wanted to come back to the RSC because I’ve had two very pleasant experiences here – Two Gentlemen of Verona and Hamlet.
I had a meeting with Greg, who had already been talking to Kathryn about coming back here, and she was very attracted to Timon of Athens. I was excited to be working with Kathryn, so it was one of those happy triangles.
Although I can’t remember sitting down and reading the play before I felt familiar with it. We set our thinking how we can set it and how to play up its strengths and camouflages its weaknesses.

You mentioned other hands being at work in the authorship – do you think of it as a Shakespeare play, or are there caveats involved?

I think there’s a security involved when you are working on a play that’s 100 per cent Shakespeare. With this one there’s interesting bits where it feels like scene has rougher edges, as if it’s not quite as finely chiseled as some of Shakespeare’s work. But he’s definitely there, definitely an author, but it puts you on your toes as it were because he doesn’t solve all the problems for you, you’ve got to come in with your own solutions.

The plot has loads of relevancy for today – what is your vision for it and how are you seeing it as a modern story?
Any play that’s set in Athens about financial irregularity and debt and bankruptcy is inevitably going to chime in some way with us. But it’s a fine line, because Shakespeare didn’t write it about modern Greece, for him it’s a classical setting.
Yet how to celebrate its Greek resonance today? And of course Kathryn is Greek… so there’s a lot of inevitable Greekness.
It’s modern, stylised though, so not drowning in mobile phones I think it’s important to keep the flavour.

Timon is traditionally a male role – in your production is she genderless?
She is a lady. There’s a global movement now to say these are not plays about men by a man for men. I think we do Shakespeare a favour by celebrating the modernity. So there are lots of ways of putting more women in his plays. One is to keep the gender of the text and just get women to play it; or one is to make very small adjustments so that a lord is now a lady.
When I did Twelfth Night and made Malvolio a Malvolia that really helped us — there’s no uncertainty about ‘is she a woman playing a man?’ no, she is just a woman. Ideally hopefully we’ll get to the point of us not noticing — so we no longer see a play and think ‘oh it’s been regendered’ ; it’s just ‘oh it’s a person’.

As Greg works through the canon inevitably more unpopular plays are being performed. Is that on your mind, that you may be faced with poor ticket sales?
Yes, of course. There’s a hit parade of Shakespeares, and the problem is that if we just keep doing the most commercially successful plays then the repertoire gets smaller and we end up seeing infinite productions of the same seven or eight plays. So the great asset of the RSC, as a subsidised theatre company, is that it is funded to keep the repertoire as substantial as it possibly can be. Subsidy allows us to do the work that we wouldn’t be able to do. The RSC are brilliant at banging the drum for overlooked plays. And it’s very much on us as the creative team to do the very best production that we can — to justify the play and win the trust of the audience… If you take a punt on a less known title you might be surprised.

What would you say to an audience to lure them to see it – what are they going to be surprised about?
It is very nice to see a Shakespeare you don’t know and be surprised by the story – so that’s a big sell I can offer. I think the audience will enjoy the real simplicity of the story of Timon of Athens. It asks us about what friends are for, what we prioritise, what we value and in a very refreshing way – what are things like at their best and worst, and how do we live when we are let down? And that’s something we all carry – we’ve all been let down, we’ve all suffered.
So it’s a funny, comic, dramatic way to explore together how that feels and how we respond to darkness. I think it could be a very healing experience and a liberating one.
The great comradery in the ensemble is another asset; and you get to see Kathryn who is exceptionally strong actress and who has a quality that is unlike anyone else. Her particular blend of wit, strength, fragility, tenderness and pathos will make for a memorable night.

Can you explain its appeal as a comedy?
It’s a play of fraud and tricksters – friends are fickle in an almost Dickensian way, and the humour lies in the gullibility of human beings. It’s sort of like one of Ford’s city comedies – with a bit of Wall Street drama and finance; it’s a caper of misunderstanding and gulling.

You are off to be the Artistic Director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, tell us about that?
I’ve wanted to run a theatre for a long time. It was exciting to be offered to run a classical theatre that was committed to Shakespeare – they do six plays a year, two of which are Shakespeare. The Washington audience, like Stratford’s, are hungry to engage with big themes. So I’m going to continue the classical repertoire and widen the brief so that classic doesn’t just mean ‘old’ but excellent too – so the plays will not just be from the renaissance but also from the 20th century, and even 21st century – that have an epic sweep. At the same time I will be coming back once a year to England to do a play, so I hope it’s not goodbye.

Finally what are you going to take to that new role that you’ve learned at the RSC?
The joy of language. I had the privilege of working with Cis Berry, and that abides with me — that need to be clear and serving up productions that reward curiosity that welcome an audience in, rather than push them away.

When and where: Timon of Athens runs at The Swan Theatre from 7th December to 22nd February. Tickets can be booked at www.rsc.org.uk or call 01789 331111