REVIEW: Timon of Athens at the RSC

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Kathryn Hunter as Timon. Photo by Simon Annand

Gold, talking sense and mirth: Steve Sutherland reviews Timon of Athens on at the RSC Swan Theatre, until 22nd February

There’s a neat symmetry to the RSC at the moment. Whether by fortuitous accident or clever design, A Christmas Carol’s running in the main theatre — a show, of course, about a grumpy miser who mends his ways to become a big-hearted benefactor. Meanwhile, in The Swan, there’s Timon Of Athens, the exact mirror opposite, a play about a gaudy philanthropist who winds up a ranting misanthrope.

And both, happily, are brilliant.

Timon is one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays. Boffins reckon it may have been a collaboration with another playwright, the satirist Thomas Middleton, and they like to point out some uneven text as evidence. It’s seldom been performed since it was written around 1605 and those who view it as a dress rehearsal for the more famous King Lear may have a point. But now, in the creative hands of Simon Godwin, one of the RSC’s more adventurous directors — his recent African Hamlet is justly renowned — it’s finally yielding up its own considerable merits.

The story’s pretty straightforward: Timon’s rich as stink and revels in bestowing expensive gifts and lavish banquets upon her so-called friends, pathetically addicted to the control and attendant feel-good factor her benevolence breeds. The time comes, though, when her coffers run dry and once she hurtles hedonistically into bankruptcy, the Tudor equivalent of Barclays and the NatWest come a-knocking for the debt. When she attempts to elicit financial aid from her clique, they are to a man and woman suddenly comically reluctant to cough up the readies.

Enraged, she decamps to a wood outside Athens and goes full-on Lear bonkers, delivering some of the Bard’s most vicious speeches as she rails against the ungratefulness of all mankind. Then she accepts death and dies.

The eagle-eyed amongst you will have noted that we have been referring to Timon as she. This is not a typo. Our protagonist is party to one of the RSC’s more successful gender swaps and is played fantastically by Kathryn Hunter. Much was made recently of Jude Owusu’s bravura performance as Tamburlaine and the good news here is for those who like a proper full-on thesp, Ms Hunter’s Timon is his match in every word and gesture. Physically tiny, she looks misleadingly frail, like one of those fledglings fallen too soon from the nest. But boy, can she curse and bellow, and she goes from delighted to disgusted, simpering to snarling, riches literally to rags majestically and convincingly, her facial expressions a force all of their own. She is such a triumph that we feel pity for her pain even though her stupid pomp and vanity brought it all upon herself.

Very good too is Nia Gwynne as the cynical philosopher Apemantus. She plays him in a Smiths t-shirt with all the haughty archness of Morrissey in his 80s prime. The perceived friendship group are fun too — a shallow, foppish bunch the lot of ’em. Not quite so convincing are the rebel army. They’re decked out in the yellow of the recent Parisian rioters, but all the clenched fist sloganeering and placard waving is a bit cliched and half-hearted. Still, why nit-pick? The production is gorgeously opulent, and the freeze-frame slo-mo effects impressively cinematic enough to distract from the annoyance of the Greek chorus device which endlessly, needlessly comments on what’s going on.

It’s saucy timing for the RSC to stage Timon right here right now, such a lurid examination of the complex and needy psychology of the altruist bang in the midst of this jolly season of giving. It brought to mind some coverage of a politician at a food bank a week or two back. He was making a very public big deal about contributing some soup cans in a bid to enhance his charitable standing whereas, in reality, it was an obscenely orchestrated, callously calculated act, just serving to illustrate how he and his self-serving sort now consider it entirely legitimate that, in 2018, we live in such a divided society that folks are too poor to fend for themselves. Tackle the roots of the problem and endanger his privilege? Nah, let’s go for the photo opp!

It’s often said that money is the root of all evil. It’s also said that money makes the world go round. Both, it seems to me, are probably true and the Great God Gold is currently spinning our globe ever more enthusiastically anti-clockwise, back in time to the darkest of ages.