20th Mar, 2019

REVIEW - Timon of Athens, RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Matthew Salisbury 14th Dec, 2018 Updated: 14th Dec, 2018

Timon of Athens

Swan Theatre

HOW the mighty are fallen. Shakespeare’s take on the folly of trying to buy affection and the inevitable failure of relying on the greedy to become altruistic overnight, ought to have lessons for us all in these have and have-not times. In losing everything are we falling from grace or tumbling into accidental enlightenment?

The descent from riches to rags is writ large across this production. It starts in gold and ends in soil. The world of the wealthy is measured in material possessions and, it would seem, in material itself. Golden dresses, golden suits and shoes to go with the gold plates and cutlery. Debts and betrayal take the gloss off this opulent picture and the second half sees the gilded lady becoming bag lady living out an existence under dirty sheets and with old oil cans for furniture.

There’s a bit of an ‘anything goes’ approach to much of Simon Godwin’s production. The music puts us in traditional Athens to start with but we don’t stay there long. Through the dinner party from hell, meetings with mafia-like creditors, re-emergence in litter strewn woods and a confrontation with an army hastily kitted out with yellow vests to match those of the Paris fuel protesters, the images are as striking as they are ultimately unconnected. It’s full of expansive sweeping gestures not entirely supported by clear purpose.

Which brings us to Timon himself. Or in this case herself. A diminutive figure, Kathryn Hunter still packs a presence and commands through an endless flow of windmill arms and physical posturing. Sadly it’s the delivery which jars. Line after line reduced to rasping three second bursts cuts right across the poetry and the sense. The renunciation rant at the close of her time in Athens is robbed of any progression or power by its being yelled into the middle distance. It’s a decent performance – occasionally brilliant – but what all this gender-changing and scattergun cultural referencing actually achieves is not that obvious. Alcibiades (Debbie Korley) is an urban machine gun toting female guerrilla; Apemantus (Nia Gwynne) is a Welsh woman in a Smiths T-shirt whose hands never leave her pockets. Anything goes indeed.

Elsewhere there’s a strong supporting cast and some tender scenes amid the customary shouting. There are some promising set pieces but the ubiquitous bowls of gore intended to spatter the blood-sucking hangers-on as Timon finally cracks are – quite literally – watered down under jets of water from gold-plated fire extinguishers. I kid you not. We’re left with a stain on the carpet. Anything going once again.

Timon’s slide into rage, realisation and death is well-observed. There’s a neat balance to be found between hating the world because it stole your status and hating yourself for even having that status in the first place. In this production Timon clearly wants a bit of both and in doing so makes a lot of noise but without any defined target. Lacking clear focus and any real sense of purpose and intent, this is a show that, like the reflections from the buried chest of gold, stays forever just out of reach. Anything goes, but nothing really went.

Visit rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.

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