REVIEW: ‘Timon of Athens’, Swan Theatre, RSC

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‘Timon of Athens‘, Swan Theatre, RSC

  ‘The love of money is the root of all evil’.

  Never has this well-known saying seemed more appropriate than in the RSC’s current production of William Shakespeare’s comic tragedy, ‘Timon of Athens’.

  Directed by Simon Godwin, the play follows the fall of Timon, the victim of a changeable and uncertain credit culture, whose unlimited bounty buys flattery, but not friendship. When her money runs out and the creditors come knocking, Timon’s friends are nowhere to be seen.  

  In a “false world”, in which the superficial seems to reign, this glittering production forces us to question what we truly value, casting an all-too-timely light on the potential “monstrosity of men”. 

Kathryn Hunter (Timon) in Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

  The production begins with a huge banquet, a showy display of Timon’s wealth, the picture of pomp, pageantry and ceremony. Designer (and in this case alchemist) Soutra Gilmour demonstrates something of the ‘Midas Touch’ in the dazzling set, in which everything is golden – the walled backdrop, the tiled floor, the tables, the chairs. The audience are as guests at this banquet – Timon’s servants offer up Turkish delight and grapes on silver platters, and we clap along to Michael Bruce’s jaunty score. Before the play begins, even before we meet Timon, we too have been invited to share in her endless bounty, we have partook in enjoying the luxuries her wealth affords. We are instantly immersed in the world of Timon, a world consumed by wealth, materialism, usury and greed.

  In the opening banquet, forming part of the entertainment, two dancers in paper dog masks move about the stage. Particularly fitting, given that so many of our characters are compared to dogs throughout the production – “dogs”, “beagles”, even “affable wolves”. Like dogs, Timon’s guests hound her, begging for a treat the way a dog might, and sniffing after wealth the way a hunting dog would follow the scent of a fox. Unlike dogs, however, these people are anything but loyal. While affable on the surface, no friendship lies beneath.

  Timon’s ‘friends’ are all too happy to take advantage of her boundless generosity – they eat at her table, they enjoy her entertainment, they flatter her with words, jewels, poetry and portraits. However, as Timon finds out, when the money stops, so too do these ‘friendships’.

The cast of Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

  When we first see her, resplendent in gold, Timon is as the sun, her wealth emanating from her as rays of sunshine, in which others are wont to bask. However, particularly during the opening banquet scene, the golden lighting is frequently replaced by a blue lighting, casting a shadow that threatens to eclipse Timon’s light. As Apemantus astutely declares, “men shut their doors against a setting sun”. When Timon ceases to shine, when her wealth, her pomp and her glory begins to set, those that once sought to take advantage of her previously favourable conditions turn their backs, shutting her off. With “no suns to borrow of”, Timon is isolated from mankind, left to stand, or to fall, alone. When this blue lighting pervades every corner of the stage, it becomes as the moon, “an arrant thief, and her pale fire she snatches from the sun”. 

  During these moments, these shadowy eclipses, Nia Gwynne’s Apemantus speaks aside to the audience as the pace slows, so that the other characters appear frozen, time halted around them. A philosopher, Gywnne’s Apemantus is an honest character, a realist, whose sees Timon’s superficial guests for what they really are – beguilers, enchanters, empty flatterers. Her dialogue over, the golden lighting returns, and the pace quickens once more, as the world continues to spin forwards, only at the mercy of wealth.

  Timon, greatly in debt, is counselled, notably by her steward, but fails to become thrifty. Very soon, creditors line up at her gates, demanding what they are owed. They shake their bills, first at her servants, then at her steward, and finally at her. When Timon stands to face them, they close in on her, bearing down on her, pushing her to the ground and throwing their bills at her. 

Kathryn Hunter (Timon) and the cast of Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

  Not out of want, but out of necessity, Timon sends her three loyal servants to approach three such ‘friends’ – Lucia (Imogen Slaughter), Lucullus (David Sturzaker) and Sempronius (James Clyde). Her servants each bear a gold box, hoping these friends would be able to fill it, returning the kindness they have so often been shown. On seeing the box, Lucia assumes Timon has sent another gift. When the servants request a sum on Timon’s behalf, Lucullus sings over the request (“la la la la”). All three come up with vain excuses, denying Timon the sum she so desperately needs. Her servants return empty handed – their golden boxes as empty as the flattery Timon was once paid, and as hollow as are her friendships with these ‘false friends’.

  In a parody of the first banquet, which exists as a superficial form of spectacle, Timon invites her guests for one final feast, this time to exact revenge. Her guests arrive as usual, ready and willing to participate in her generosity after themselves denying her. Now, after her guests are seated on cushions on the floor as Timon strives to humble them, the platters are brought in as usual. However, when the lids are lifted, it is not food, but blood, that lines the dish. Timon lifts a bowl and pours its contents down herself, before sprinkling blood over her seated guests. When they stand and huddle together, she lifts another bowl and throws it at them, as her servants enter with hoses and soak them, as though cleansing purging them of their sin in denying their mistress. Blood is said to be the life force of a person, without which they would not be living – it is vital for survival. In today’s consumerist world, money is as blood, tragically vital to sustaining a person, and therefore life. In receiving so much of Timon’s wealth, without ‘transfusing’ anything in return, her guests, these “parasites”, are sucking the life force, that which allows her to live, from her, effectively bleeding her for all she had. Cannibals, these parasites, these leeches, “must eat men”. 

Kathryn Hunter (Timon) in Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

  Abandoned by her friends in her hour of need, Timon exiles herself, and goes to live in the woods, here littered with bin bags, alloys, petrol cans, and other such junk items, a far cry from the opulence she is used to. Digging a hole in the ground, and ironically finding a chest of gold, she uncovers something of far greater worth – root vegetables. Gold is of no use to her now. Instead, she uncovers the richness of the earth, and its ability to provide for her what is essential for her survival. She later questions, “Why should you want? Behold, the earth has roots”. In a world that revolves around money, the common thread is that money is essential for a happy and healthy life. As American novelist Louisa May Alcott wrote: “Money is the root of all evil, and yet it is such a useful root that we cannot get on without it any more than we can without potatoes”. So is the way of the world. This “damned earth” has become the “common whore of mankind”, debased, used solely for personal gain and pleasure, consumed by greed and usury.

  Although she has been stripped of everything, people return once more to Timon when they learn she has a chest of gold, shamelessly declaring, “we’ll do anything for gold”. We are first introduced to Ralph Davis’ poet and Sagar I M Arya‘s painter – two men in the habit of flattering Timon through their work, selling their art to the highest bidder. Now, they visit Timon in the woods in the hopes of receiving more gold, visiting under the guise of promising future commission. So desperate are they for gold, at Timon’s bidding, the painter eats a worm, and the poet drinks what we can only assume to be Timon’s urine. Timon exclaims, “Good honest men (sarcasm well and truly noted): – Thou draw’st a counterfeit best in all Athens… For thy fiction, why thy verse swells with stuff so fine and smooth, that thou art even natural in thine art”. ‘Counterfeit’ here takes on a double meaning, suggesting ‘fake’, and Timon certainly recognises now the falseness of their friendship, and the emptiness of their prior flattery. They paint, they write, covering over such emptiness, but the very play in which they feature mocks the flattery of their art, uncovering the hollow void beneath the surface, casting them as unnatural villains.  

Nia Gwynne (Apemantus) in Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

  When Timon is alone in the woods, Apemantus visits her, taking a packed lunch and a flask. In amongst some rather comical insult-slinging, and a food fight, the two discuss the fate of the world, and what they would do with it if it lay in their power. After Apemantus suggests she would give it to the beasts, and reside along with them, Timon asks, “What beast could’st thou be, that were not subject to a beast?”. Just as one species is subject, or prey, to another, so too is mankind always subject, one could even so far as to say victim, to another, whether this be somebody, or something, like money. Like animals in a food chain, we are all prey to the great predator – money. Therefore, it is all too easy to fall into greed, corruption and sometimes, as in our opening statement, evil. After throwing sandwiches at each other, Timon runs up and hugs Apemantus, a very touching display. Despite having stated that she hates Apemantus, there is a realisation here that Apemantus is one of only a few true friends of Timon – one of the few that has always been honest, has spoken truth, and has not simply blinded her with empty flattery. Indeed, Apemantus, steward Flavius (Patrick Drury), and servants Flaminius (Rosy McEwen), Servilius (Riad Richie) and Lucillius (Salman Akhtar), are the only ones who share a “true friendship” with Timon, loyal to her even when she has nothing. 

  Though small in stature, Kathryn Hunter gives a monumental performance as central character Timon, dignified throughout, even at the character’s lowest moments. We see a visible transformation, notably in regards to her appearance, as her wealth slips away from her. Beginning the production in a gold dress, with a gold headpiece and sparkling shoes, it is not long before we see her adorned with a white dress, with few gold discs, and black ballet shoes, and then rags and boots. Her appearance mirrors her fall from wealth and glory, her fickle fashion as changeable and uncertain as her financial standing. It is certainly true that “Timon will be left a naked gull, which flashes now a phoenix”.

  Hunter attributes a touching humanity to the character so that, rather than simply acting as a device through which the play’s themes are conveyed, she becomes quite an endearing character, one to be pitied, a living, breathing soul, that has been wronged, broken, by the falseness of others, whose “worst sin is she does too much good”, tragically bringing about her downfall.

Kathryn Hunter (Timon) in Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

  In the words of Shakespeare himself, spoken through the mouth of the poet, this is “a satire against the softness of prosperity; with a discovery of the infinite flatteries that follow youth and opulence”.

  Underneath the portraiture and poetry that champions insubstantial pageantry, ‘Timon of Athens’ reminds us that we live in a world that spins around the axis of wealth, suspended in the base nothingness of insatiable greed.

  With mankind continuously in a state of want, striving only to satisfy selfish desires, seeking only to gain and entirely for their own profit, money is as a god. It is exalted, sanctified, idolised, even worshipped.

  The sad truth is that money has become to mankind the root of their very existence, without which it is believed we cannot survive. This resonant production stands as a powerful plea to banish usury and greed, encouraging us to value that which we cannot truly live without, begging us to invest in what is really necessary to ensure our own health and happiness.

The cast of Timon of Athens. Photo credit: Simon Annand

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