Timon of Athens is a bracingly subversive success for the RSC in Stratford

Picture: Simon Annand
Picture: Simon Annand

Peter Ormerod reviews Timon of Athens, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford

Timon of Athens is a bracingly subversive success for the RSC in Stratford

Kathryn Hunter as Timon. Picture: Simon Annand

Kathryn Hunter as Timon. Picture: Simon Annand

Peter Ormerod reviews Timon of Athens, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford

From Cinderella to Aladdin, there is no shortage of rags-to-riches stories being played out on the nation's stages at the moment. Timon of Athens presents us with the opposite: a tale of the grandest of riches leading to the tattiest of rags. That it makes for a night of invigorating and at times thrilling theatre is perhaps testament more to the quality of the production than the play.

It is not hard to discern why this is one of Shakespeare's more rarely performed works. It does not ring with especially memorable verse or resound with great universal truths. It is lacking in likeable characters. It is rather bleak and bitter and there is no conventional sense of redemption. In lesser hands, it could make for an entirely unprepossessing affair.

So we are to be grateful for the extraordinary talent of Kathryn Hunter, who plays Timon, and for the wisdom of Simon Godwin, who directs deftly and allows Hunter the space she deserves. Hunter is rarely off stage and is never less than compelling: mercurial of physicality and gutteral of voice, her brokenness always apparent in her supposed dignity and her dignity always apparent in her supposed brokenness. She is known as a master of physical theatre but she is more even than that, her voice work impeccably fluent and fluid and rich, and her mastery of all who surround her, even in her ruin, absolute. Her speech at the end of the first act is surely one of the most powerful few minutes of theatre the RSC has staged this year, as she rails against the apparent betrayal of the friends who had been all too glad to benefit from her largesse, leading her to leave her gilded home for the squalor of the woods. Her transformation from philanthrope to misanthrope feels perfectly human.

Picture: Simon Annand

Picture: Simon Annand

Herein lies the play's most potent insight: that the benefactor and the miser perhaps share the same defect of character. In the opening scene, a decadent feast thrown by Timon for her associates, the folly and cant is undercut by interjections from Apemantus, who delivers one of the key lines: "He that loves to be flattered is worthy o' the flatterer." There is a sense that Timon's idea of friendship is always essentially transactional, with money equated with love; in truth, she is never anything other than lonely.

It is the simplicity and directness of the production that allows all this to show itself. Bar the startling appearance of a singer in the opening banquet, and perhaps slight overuse of freeze-frame and slow motion, Godwin's direction is pleasingly reined in and unfussy. This is his first work at the RSC since his triumphant Hamlet in 2016 and he is plainly a director of great ability. There is an appealing clarity to Soutra Gilmour's design and Tim Lutkin's lighting, while Michael Bruce's music and Christopher Hutt's sound design lead the production's mood from ribald and rousing to haunting and ethereal. And the appearance of yellow-jacketed protesters shows either impressive alertness or eerie prescience in its reflection of the current 'gilets jaunes' demonstrations in Paris.

Hunter is well supported by the entire cast but a couple of performances stand out. Patrick Drury impressed in last year's Titus Andronicus and is on fine form here, playing a similar character in the form of Flavius, Timon's steward, whose job it is to manage her financial affairs. He is almost heartbreaking in his nobility, decency, loyalty and, it must be said, naivety. He carries in his compassion a strange complexity; he would make a marvellous lead actor in a television drama about a slightly askew civil servant. Also impressive is Nia Gwynne as Apemantus, whose withering observations prove perceptive. She wears a Smiths t-shirt, which feels quite appropriate: she sometimes sounds like Morrissey railing against the vacuous glamour of the '80s music scene. And her eventual embrace with Timon, following some very entertaining verbal sparring, is a moving moment as the realisation dawns that they are not so different after all.

Many scholars believe Timon of Athens to be a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, who was known for his edgy satires. On paper, it often appears incoherent and uncertain. But Hunter and Godwin deserve great credit for making the play feel so grounded and vivid, with the occasional flourish that will linger in the memory. It is unlikely to become anyone's favourite Shakespeare but its examination of money, status and the dark side of generosity is certainly worthy of consideration - and, especially at this time of year, feels bracingly subversive.

Kathryn Hunter as Timon. Picture: Simon Annand

Kathryn Hunter as Timon. Picture: Simon Annand

* Timon of Athens runs until February 22. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/timon-of-athens to book.

Picture: Simon Annand

Picture: Simon Annand

Picture: Simon Annand

Picture: Simon Annand

Patrick Drury as Flavius. Picture: Simon Annand

Patrick Drury as Flavius. Picture: Simon Annand