The Cast of Timon of Athens. Photo by Henry Grossman
This is one of those ‘problem’ plays of Shakespeare’s. Scholars, after studying the text of one of Shakespeare’s least favored plays, Timon of Athens, gives partial writing credit to Thomas Middleton. They have stated that probably about 40 percent is Middleton’s work and 60 percent, with a focus on the later half, is clearly Shakespeare. One can feel that. It’s Shakespearean but one that stubbles on itself with its social commentary and unclear themes. It’s rarely performed because of its many complicated aspects, like the central character, who we are supposed to gather behind, being miffed when asked to pay the debts that supported the lavish lifestyle of Timon’s home. But the later lessons that float up after the fall feel true and meaningful; that material generosity doesn’t buy support, love, or security. Those ideas seem to resonate solidly within Timon and the rest of this very solid cast, but are these lessons learned enough to hold us for the length of this tragic play?
Thankfully, this Theatre for a New Audience and Shakespeare Theatre Company production, in association with The Royal Shakespeare Company, shimmers with the golden luster rivaling the opulent opening Act. Directed with precision and clarity by Simon Godwin (RSC’s Hamlet), the edited down version courtesy of Emily Burns and the director, finds the buried treasure within its structure and restructuring. It is formulated for impact and edited for clarity, but the heart, pain, and force lies most determinately in the hands and arms of the slight but formidable Kathryn Hunter (Julie Taymor’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) who grabs hold of the titular character with such delicious gender-flipping force that we gladly join her in her King Lear-ian decent into hermetic pseudo madness. Her fall under the piles of bills due and the beautifully recreated and typically repetitive debt-collection scenes surge the dig forward. The creative team, alongside the stellar cast, unearths treasure after treasure, while Hunter’s steadfast brilliance powers through the messy construct, finding its sly genius in the way she can alter a thief’s determination or drive a man to eat and drink the unthinkable.
The structure, laid out with intricate grandeur by set and costume designer Soutra Gilmour (Broadway’s Betrayal) with a solid lighting design by Donald Holder (TFANA’s He Brought Her Heart…) and sound design by Christopher Shutt (RCT/BAM’s Escaped Alone), discovers the gold under the dirt. Act one seems to be about Timon understanding her own misconception of loyalty and friendship, while Act two focuses on making sure the other players have learned their hard lessons as well. Standing alongside, watching the fall like Lear’s Fool is the wonderful Arnie Burton (Rattlestick’s Lewiston/Clarkston) as Apemantus. He is the wise philosopher who attends Timon’s banquet and berates all of her guests as greedy flatterers and parasites. We know he’s right from the get-go, and Timon of Athens, the play and the character, doesn’t have much further to go on this issue. Like Lear, we see the titular character and his/her flaws from the very first moment. The rest is about understanding their mistake and internal flaw. It’s fascinating that it takes a brilliant woman, like Glenda Jackson’s Lear and Hunter’s Timon to fulfill the argument and bring it home. King Lear does it with more depth and detailed precision, while the lessor Timon is not as sure footed and precise, but here, in the beautiful halls of TFANA, Timon of Athens gets about the best treatment one can hope for, digging up the buried treasure and presenting it with unearthed surprise. Luckily, we are all there to watch it shine in its authentic glory.
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