Timon of Athens
director Simon Godwin
company Theater for a New Audience
Timon of Athens is at the periphery of Shakespeare’s canon, a late-career collaboration with Thomas Middleton that reads like a rough draft. Its unfinished condition should make it a favorite of directors who like to stamp their visions on the classics. Yet Timon has only been staged twice in my 20+ years in NYC; it’s a treat just to glimpse it in the wild.
Besides, the subject is timely but timeless: avarice among the rich. Timon, a patrician in classical Athens, spends money charitably but recklessly until it runs out. Bankruptcy sends Timon into the wilderness as a vagrant; buried treasure is a stimulus for invective rather than redemption. Finally the self-exiled pauper supports a general’s assault on Athens and then expires with a curse. Thematically & tonally, the play is a forerunner of modernism, with its alienation & disillusion, and its visions of the corruptive nature of capital. Like other late plays by Shak, it experiments with allegory & parable at the expense of plot & psychology.
Simon Godwin, now in charge of the Shakespeare Theater Company in DC, directs this co-production between his company, the RSC, & TFANA. He’s cut & shaped the text considerably—sometimes radically—to make it stageworthy, but he & dramaturg Emily Burns have retained the character of Shak’s collab with Middleton. The staging is typical for more forward-looking companies, lively & modern. When soliloquies play in the foreground, the action upstage turns silent & slow-mo; three repetitious scenes of aristos snubbing Timon are collapsed into a montage. These devices heighten the play’s setpieces and render the underfleshed plot into compelling theater.
The major rewrite involves that general’s assault on Athens. In the original it’s an act of treachery, like Coriolanus’ march on Rome. In this staging it’s an insurgency, a mobilization of leftist protesters. Early in the play, the general says, in lines written by Godwin & Burns:
“The dispossessed without the city walls make their abode…
No roof, no comfort, no hope of citizenship
No home, no country, they have abandoned hope.”
In this tragedy, Timon’s suffering and death is a sacrifice to the spirit of economic justice.
Almost incidentally, Timon and the general have been recast as women. It’s not to any thematic or theatrical effect, except the straightforward values of progressive casting. It gives a great actor, Kathryn Hunter, the chance to play a traditionally male role. The pronouns are changed but the part itself is sexless; Timon begins the play as a modern society matron, a thrower of dinner parties, and ends in filth & burlap. Hunter holds together the role & the show by force of personality. Her elfin face belies her remarkable presence, and her small stature contains the physical strength of a gymnast. By the fifth act, her reflections on human nature are filled with anguish, elevating the sense of tragedy to Lear-like proportions.
As with many of Shak’s plays, the first half of Timon is stronger than the second. The city of Athens is presented in Oriental minimalism: black outfits gilded with gold, a live klezmer band, a bare brass wall with an empty black entrance. The wasteland of the second half is austere, the stage covered in dirt, and the action more fable-like. This shift of tone pays off when three bandits show up, intending to steal Timon’s treasure. Instead they’re treated to a mournful lecture on the wealth, and moved to quit thieving forever. The conversion of these clods is original to Shak, and it sounds a strange note of redemption. It’s the diamond in this play’s rough, and TFANA’s Timon presents it without a flaw.