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Timon of Athens is quite possibly the weirdest play in the Shakespeare canon. Based loosely on the life of the ancient misanthrope described in Plutarch, there’s no record of it ever being performed or published in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Many regard it as an unfinished work nearly lost to history, as it was only a late addition to the posthumously published First Folio of 1623. While both Herman Melville and Karl Marx have sung its praises, it has never been widely popular, and even in cities which boast more than one theater company dedicated to the Bard, it’s rarely seen. Yet given its themes of wealth and excess, there has been a noticeable revival of interest since the global financial crisis of 2008—the Folger staged a production in 2017.
Director Simon Godwin, who also coedited the script with Emily Burns, originally presented his Timon at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2018 before reviving it in January at New York’s Theatre for a New Audience prior to its transfer to D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company where Godwin just took on the mantle of artistic director. In Godwin’s version, the scene is not Athens of antiquity, but a future Athens in which lavish displays of wealth distract from signs that the city is teetering on the precipice of socio-economic instability.
Scenic designer Soutra Gilmour has crafted a world of opulence that the figures seen in Gustav Klimt’s paintings would inhabit: a gigantic gold-leafed curtain, chandeliers, a long banquet table (also in gold-leaf ) being set by servants, all gorgeously illuminated by lighting designer Donald Holder. The first characters to speak are a painter (Zachary Fine) and a poet (Yonatan Gebeyehu) who, like the elites they serve, have been clothed by Gilmour in gold threads. They use their craft to honor their patron—perhaps a stroke of self-satire, as Shakespeare and his company, by then known as the King’s Men, had an intimate relationship with the crown and royal court. The titular Timon (Kathryn Hunter) is a wealthy lady of Athens, taking on and forgiving the debts of both servants and her peers, and hosting lavish parties with music and dance. Michael Bruce’s compositions for clarinet, bouzouki, and voice evoke both Greek rebetiko and klezmer bulgars, while Jonathan Goddard choreographs an intoxicated dance inspired by the Balkan Peninsula’s circular folk dances.
After the party, the bills are due. Timon’s charity and hedonism were both on credit, and none of her beneficiaries are willing to fill the collection box. Bankrupt, Timon’s philanthropy becomes misanthropy and she trades her golden palace for a dirty hole in the ground. Like her cynical philosopher friend Apemantus (Arnie Burton, dressed as a middle-aged punk rocker in a black cardigan and a Patti Smith T-shirt), she now subsists entirely on root vegetables (he prefers parsnips; she carrots). When she does find gold, she does not seek to restore her standingbut to destroy Athens, turning Alcibiades’ (Elia Monte-Brown) blackclad anarchist drum corps protesting economic inequity into an armed-to-theteeth nihilist militia prepared to march into the city and “with man’s blood paint the ground.”
Even in his other Jacobean-era collaborations with Thomas Middleton, Shakespeare is never more pessimistic. It’s a puzzle as to what two dramatists who enjoyed King James’ favor were thinking about the politics of the time. But as modernist as it seems, prefiguring the gnomic existentialism of Samuel Beckett and the class struggle of Bertolt Brecht by centuries, it is also a puzzle for today. What to make of the anarchists’ affections for a now down-and-out member of the aristocracy? The elites of Athens did not consider Timon “too big to fail,” and only invited her back into their ranks so she might call off Alcibiades’ armies.
While the production boasts an excellent cast, they are constantly in the shadow of Kathryn Hunter in the lead role. Despite her diminutive stature, she is an imposing presence, with a voice that growls and purrs yet speaks with classical diction. But it is her mastery of physical theater that ensures that she is always the center of the spectacle. She is uninhibited with bawdy comedy, but with every flutter of her fingers or split-second cantilevered pose she etches her performance into the audience’s memory.
To March 22 at 450 7th St. NW. $35–$112. (202) 547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.