Timon Of Athens (Online review)

Timon Of Athens (Online review)

There is only one Shakespeare play that I’ve never seen in any format or got round to reading. So, although I vaguely know the storyline Timon Of Athens it has always been a bit of a mystery to me. It is of course only rarely done, not having the heft of the great tragedies, although, if it can be categorised, this is probably where it best sits. It turns out that it a play also full of humour though this is of the darkest sort.

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Lady Timon is a philanthropist, supporter of the arts, benefactor to humankind in general and her friends in particular. The problem is that it is all one-way traffic and when the money starts running out nobody wants to know. Timon rejects society and goes to live outside Athens in a hermit like existence. While digging for roots she discovers gold and suddenly everyone wants to see her again. This time she is not to be so easily bought and exposes the so called friends, the city’s politicians and various hangers on with their own agendas as the hypocrites they are.

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As a Shakespeare plot it is remarkably single track and while it all sounds quite unrelentingly gloomy Timon is given a nice line in invective which she puts to good use as various people visit her in isolation. A battle of wits with Apemantus, the cynical and misanthropic philosopher, is particularly central. Apemantus tries to warn Timon all along that her friends are of the fair-weather variety but fails to make her listen. Her “I told you so” visit to Timon has the two trading insults in the Jacobean equivalent of a rap battle. The third key character is Alcibiades, soldier and rebel who leads a revolt against Athens and whom Timon bank rolls to complete her mission. The role seems somewhat underwritten and it has long been held that, as far as Timon is concerned, for Shakespeare it was still very much a work in progress.

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Timon Of Athens is normally a male dominated play through and through so it is interesting that director Simon Jenkins gives the three main parts to female performers (I think there are probably other gender swaps but as I don’t know the play that well I’m unable to comment). Kathryn Hunter has form in this area having played (separately) Lear and The Fool, Puck and Richard III. Her Greek heritage, diminutive stature and unique voice all contribute to produce a performance which is spitfire like in its intensity. Her character is perhaps a little less believable when she is playing the bountiful host – it’s hard to believe that Hunter herself would ever be so gullible. But after the transformation she is totally credible as the bitter recluse who has shades of Lear about her person. It is all Nia Gwynne (Apemantus) and Debbie Korley (Alcibiades) can do to keep up with her. There is nothing wrong with either performance but the characters as written lack the fizz and sparkle of the central figure. There are a host of other solid performances but with so many of the roles being written in one dimension only it is little wonder that none of them are particularly memorable.

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Simon Godwin’s production reeks of wealth and privilege at the start and of corruption and filth by the end. It’s a pacey production and, although I suspect there was some judicious cutting, it means that there is a running time of just over two hours. The scenes in which various of Timon’s “friends” reject pleas for help have been cleverly intercut to limit repetition and means there are far fewer set changes to cope with. In general, these are covered by Michael Bruce’s authentic sounding Greek music and the vocals of Dunia Botic. Soutra Gilmour’s set and costumes are resplendent in gold and white initially, changing to black and greys set within a rubbish tip. This follows the arc of Timon’s mind as her experiences embitter her and she begins to rail against the world and all that is within it; it is as if Ebenezer Scrooge takes a reverse journey from happiness and contentment to misery and despair. Now, there’s an interesting role for Kathryn Hunter to play.

Production photos by Simon Annand

Timon Of Athens is available via Marquee TV. Click here

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