Timon of Athens review – Kathryn Hunter lays waste to wealth worship

The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon
A searing central performance flips the gender dynamics as Shakespeare’s study of greed gets a ravishing revival

Shakespeare’s embittered satire, notoriously, shows the world as a men’s club. Simon Godwin’s production overturns that not only by casting Kathryn Hunter as Lady Timon but also by having key roles, such as the churlish Apemantus and the militant Alcibiades, played by women. Vivaciously staged, the production re-animates a play that can all too easily seem a disjointed parable.

Inevitably, it is a play of two halves: in the first the spendthrift Timon discovers the falsity of friendship and in the second turns into an hermitic misanthrope. The fascinating thing about Hunter is that she becomes more powerful as the play proceeds.

For all the lavish banquets and Greek dances of the first half, I never thought she caught Timon’s use of wealth as a substitute for human contact. But she is brilliant once she becomes a squatter in a woodland rubbish-dump. Having herself played King Lear, she also brings out the obvious parallels. She dons a crown of briars like Lear on the heath, is full of violent contradictions as she embraces Apemantus after attacking her and seizes on every opportunity for ironic humour. Hunter even moves one as she goes to her grave having acquired, through dispossession, self-discovery.

The other gender-switches work well. Debbie Korley transforms Alcibiades into an angry revolutionary marching on Athens with banners proclaiming “Banish usury and greed”, Nia Gwynne captures the caustic cynicism of Apemantus and Rosy McEwen dances nimble attendance on Timon as her servant, Flaminia. In more traditional casting, Patrick Drury touchingly belies Timon’s condemnation of human dishonesty by playing her steward, Flavius, as a cautiously prudent figure rather like Philip Hammond warning against the dangers of fiscal fantasy.

An intriguing programme article suggests the real parallels are with modern Greece which, like Timon, recklessly overspent only to be brought up against harsh economic reality. But, while it’s a tempting analogy, I see the play as a more universal study of human ingratitude, the alienating effect of riches and the solitude of self-realisation. It is that last quality that Hunter seizes on in an astonishing performance.

Contributor

Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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