Monday, February 10, 2020

Timon of Athens: Lonely at the Bottom

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens. (Photo: Henry Grossman)

In Shakespeare’s late, one-of-a-kind tragedy Timon of Athens (now generally accepted by scholars as a collaboration with Thomas Middleton, co-author of The Changeling), a wealthy Athenian given to displays of staggering generosity whose fair-weather friends deny him when he runs into deep financial trouble turns his back on his city and goes to live in a cave. It’s a fable, but still the protagonist’s personality change is so extreme that, for modern audiences at least, I can’t imagine how it would work without a strong psychological reading of his character. When Simon Russell Beale played it at the National Theatre eight years ago under Nicolas Hytner’s direction, Timon’s excessive benevolence was provoked by a desperate need to have people like him, so his eviscerating bitterness in the second half played as fury at being deprived of what he had worked so hard and so continually to secure. Simon Godwin’s new version, which he staged with the Royal Shakespeare Company and has imported to Brooklyn for Theatre for a New Audience, lacks any real explanation for the shift except for the narrative circumstances – and they aren’t enough to make the play work dramatically.

The British actress Kathryn Hunter recreates her RSC performance as Timon – the rest of the show has been recast with Americans – and she’s part of the problem. Hunter has a diminutive, mandarin presence and a pebbly, cocoa-tinted voice, like Eartha Kitt crossed with Tammy Grimes, an easy command of the verse, and weird but undeniable charisma. But her physical choices are less interesting than her vocal ones, and her transformation is neither plausible nor emotionally effective. In the second half she seems to be playing at the role rather than inhabiting it. But at least she’s an adept technician. Godwin has surrounded her with mostly young actors without much skill, especially with the verse. The only supporting players who step up are two veterans who play foils: John Rothman as Timon’s sympathetic steward Flavius, who tries unsuccessfully to warn her that she’s running out of money and whom she sends on the fruitless errand of borrowing it from the people she’s been wasting it on; and Arnie Burton as the misanthrope Apemantus, whose cynicism about humankind strikes an almost companionable note with her when he visits her in her cave.

The first act contains some striking visual touches, especially in Soutra Gilmour’s costumes, and though it’s overstated it’s fairly entertaining. But after intermission Godwin seems to run out of good ideas, and some of the humor panders to the audience (like a moment when two of Timon’s cave visitors, trying to curry favor with him upon hearing that he’s discovered gold, allow him to feed them worms and urine). Godwin has cut much of the text – he and Emily Burns are listed as textual editors in the program – including much of the scene between Timon and Apemantus at the heart of the second half, but it still feels long, and the ending doesn’t have a clear point. The production limps toward curtain.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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