Charmingly electric and bursting with personality, Simon Godwin’s reboot of Timon of Athens (★★★★★) is not just an exciting retelling of this Shakespeare play, it is something of an event. Not only is this a female Timon, but she comes in the inimitable form of Kathryn Hunter, one of the most charismatic embodiments of a Shakespearean character you are ever likely to meet.
Tiny, wiry, and with a voice as big and husky as a stevedore’s, Hunter is the kind of actor whose Shakespeare is emoted not just with voice, but with the entire body. A choreographed, understated wonder, Hunter’s every move, gesture and reach of the hand serves the text. Like great dance, it is simpatico with the music of the language and it is truly gratifying to experience. Is it dramatic, flamboyant, grand? Yes. Does it work? Absolutely.
But if Hunter’s physical presence is the first thing to grip the attention, her phenomenal command of Shakespeare’s language and meaning is equally front, center and mesmerizing; her phrasing, pauses, and choice of emphasis pure magic. It is as if she, quite simply, hands out the meaning of the words and the emotion behind them. It is an educated kind of accessibility — joyous for those who are familiar, a revelation for the newly initiated. Add the choice to have Timon engage with the audience — be it with knowing looks or directly — and the effect is warm, personable, and yet another way in which this production invites the audience to relax and engage.
It’s also a clever approach for a play that isn’t known for its grand events or historical tragedy, but more as a clever, ultimately pessimistic, contemplation of selfishness. Set in two parts, the tale begins with the too-generous Timon who, when the money finally runs out, finds that her supposed friends — all who have been eager recipients of lavish gifts — quickly disown her. In disgust, Timon leaves her fallen estate and makes camp in the wilderness, where she is approached in turn by former friends, politicians, thieves, one true compatriot, and a band of rebels (criminals, in the play as written). As each person interrupts Timon’s solitude, she challenges their selfishness while revealing more of her own philosophy on humankind’s best purpose.
But even if this is something of a “small” story compared to Shakespeare’s other plays, he and likely co-author Thomas Middleton do generate a host of clever one-liners and insults, mind-blowingly relevant commentary on greed and empty promises, and some truly beautiful riffs on the sun, moon, and life, as the world beyond Athens becomes more and more profound to Timon.
Carrying this journey, Hunter’s larger-than-life Timon is pitched perfectly: like one of Shakespeare’s kings, as generous and unassuming as she is, it is soon clear that she has a questing mind and soul, living an internal life apart from the fray. And yet, reinterpreted as a female role, Hunter brings Timon an entirely new dimension, with a fascinating energy. She hugs, strokes and shows tender compassion and yet, once her fortunes are gone, she fights, rails, and clomps around like a free-spirited kid. It is a beautifully genderless telling, not least because there is no story here of male threat or female submission. Hunter takes her beyond her gender and into her personhood and the play utterly blossoms with it.
Of course, this concept of Timon is a shared enterprise between Godwin and Hunter, and her star turn is carefully, skillfully balanced with the overall vision of a colorful, fast-paced entertainment that plays with mood, moving seamlessly between the fun and the somber. Set in a slightly surreal, futuristic Greece, scenic and costume designer Soutra Gilmour skillfully orchestrates some complex and thoroughly messy scenes and has fun with the snazzy outfits of the sycophantic aristocrats surrounding Timon before her fall. But she also gives Timon a wonderfully expressive sackcloth after she takes refuge on the Greek hinterlands, which Hunter carries with flair. Lighting designer Donald Holder plays with attractive neon hues and then tamps it all down into a stark, bold light as Timon contemplates her disappointment in human nature. A semi-onstage band playing interludes of Greek folk music and Christopher Shutt’s quieter mood-setting soundscape is effective and brings a further sense of intimacy.
Supporting Hunter is a compelling and cohesive cast, with Arnie Burton standing out for his low-key, post-punk Apemantus, who shows a genuine, if gruff, affection for Timon. As Flavius, John Rothman offers an agitated, tightly wound right-hand man who brings some convincing angst to the sudden loss of Timon’s stature and safety as her debts become due. In the role of fair-weather friend Sempronius, Daniel Pearce delivers some giggle-worthy one-liners and generally raises the irony meter, while Zachary Fine’s Painter vacillates convincingly between twittering obsequiousness and seriously greedy. Yonatan Gebeyehu is a charismatic Poet, if shouting a bit more than expressing at times. Both Liam Craig’s Demetrius and Dave Quay’s Lucullus bring complementary color and Elia Monte-Brown makes for an interestingly grim rebel leader, Alcibiades. Of the younger players, Adam Langdon shows a willing presence and energy.
For the chance to see an infrequently staged play and an unforgettable Timon, if you have the gold, use it for this.
Timon of Athens runs through March 22 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Michael R. Klein Theatre, 450 7th Street NW. Tickets are $35 to $120. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.
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