Among Shakespeare’s plays are a special few whose relevance waxes and wanes with the times. They disappear from the stage for years, only to re-emerge when they are ready to speak to our issues, our problems. And when they return, they devour the stage and fire our imaginations as if they were newly-minted.
Timon of Athens definitely falls into this camp; a messy, late-career effort, likely cobbled together with a fellow script doctor, it has a central character of improbable light and unbearable darkness, not to mention quirks in the storyline that render it impossible to produce for audiences who like their plots nice and tidy.
Director Simon Godwin, with Emily Burns, has edited and adapted Timon for modern audiences, with stunning effect. And with a finely-tuned cast, led by Kathryn Hunter in the title role, you’re in for a gut-wrenching play that is shockingly relevant to America, more than 400 years after it was first produced. It is one of the most compelling meditations on wealth inequality, poverty, and the bitterness that hovers over the body politic when self-interest trumps true charity.
Hunter lights up the theater with her first grand entrance, dressed to the nines by Soutra Gilmour—who also provides us with a monumental backdrop reminiscent of an ancient temple. Coupled with Donald Holder’s shimmering lights, Hunter’s turn as the socialite-in-demand, gracious to a fault, creates an atmosphere of giddy delight. The generosity flows with the bubbly, and the company of flatterers — led by Yonatan Gebeyehu’s hilariously glib Poet and Zachary Fine’s clueless Painter — feed on Timon in more ways than one.
Timon’s fall from wealth to poverty is precipitous, and in addition to Hunter’s agony, we follow Timon’s changed fortunes through her servants, led by the riveting John Rothman in his turn as Flavius. As level-headed as he is desperate to save her, Flavius speaks from a hard-won knowledge of the nature of his Athens — then as now, vulnerable to self-seekers and crooks.
It is after Timon’s fall that we meet the notoriously shifty Alcibiades, a rabble-rousing populist leading a band of the dispossessed, banners held high, desperate to reclaim what was once theirs. Elia Monte-Brown gives Alcibiades a forceful dissenting voice, and Director/Editor Godwin gives her radicalism a different patina in this incarnation.
The second act is notable for its bleakness (Gilmour hangs bare boughs overhead), but it also has time for further meditations on the wages of wealth. From her seaside hovel, Timon’s discovery of a horde of gold leads to a series of reflections on the toll riches have taken on her. The scene is punctuated by a sequence of encounters in which different characters react to her newfound gold. Timon’s final rebuke of Athens — she is now using her wealth to generate chaos — will leave you stunned. Hunter still commands the stage at this point, although over the course of the second act, her delivery occasionally falls back on a declamatory style that pins the language on a single emotional tonal pitch.
To heighten the festive atmosphere here, Composer Michael Bruce provides us with incidental music played by a live band, inflected with passages for bouzouki and clarinet, to reinforce the modern Greek setting, while Kristen Misthopoulos leads the live, upstage band with her compelling vocals.
John Masefield, the British playwright and Poet Laureate, once lamented that Timon of Athens was only rarely seen in his day. But he understood that each play has its time, and that “like other works of genius, it waits for genius.” What this play needed was an artist who recognized its time had come once again, and who knew how to shake audiences with its powerful message. Simon Godwin has given us a coup-de-théàtre, one which should resonate far and wide in these highly charged times.
Running Time: 2 and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.