Tag Archives: Royal Shakespeare

RSC: Kathryn Hunter’s Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

When Judith and I  learned that the Royal Shakespeare was doing it this winter, with Kathryn Hunter in the lead role, we were more than excited.

Kathryn Hunter is a remarkable actor. She is known for her powerful stage presence, her prowess as a physical performer, and for fearlessly and effectively tackling male roles. We’ve been fortunate to see her in two unforgettable productions: Richard III at the Globe in 2003 and Yerma at the Arcola in 2006. So Judith and I came to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Hunter in Timon of Athens with the highest of expectations.

Though Hunter’s charismatic force was in evidence, the production as a whole  was disappointing. It seemed unfocused, as if they hadn’t worked out just why Timon should be a woman. (And in this production, Timon is a woman, wearing a golden dress through the first act — unlike, for example, her Richard III, who dresses and acts as a male.) Does this gender switch illuminate the play, or alternatively, does it help us understand something about our culture and our time? I didn’t find either.

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens, photo by Simon Annand

Elements of design and staging seemed easy, even perfunctory. The first act is drenched in gold, a bit obvious even in these Trumpian times. In the second act, Timon digging for roots to eat, finds a carrot already peeled and washed. The rebel forces carry signs all drawn with the same magic marker, with unlikely slogans (“Banish Usury”). Other details seemed hasty and unformed.

Timon is an anomaly in the Shakespeare canon: stripped down, moralistic, with a simple A/B structure that is tragedy at its simplest. The old blues song says it: Nobody knows you when you’re down and out. When Timon is rich, he gives freely and excessively to his friends; when his money is gone they turn his back on him. He becomes an embittered misanthrope, living rough in a barren desert. When he discovers a cask of gold, he gives most of it to a band of rebels marching against the city. and dies in the wilderness, offstage. The characters, Timon included, lack the subtleties, nuances and contradictions so characteristic of Shakespeare. The play is a diatribe against greed and hypocrisy, stark and elemental. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Timon is the one that most relates to the world outside the theatre walls. It isn’t about ancient Athens, it’s about here and now, Shakespeare’s here and now, and ours. It’s up to the director to draw the connections.

This production seems half-baked and under-done, especially given that this is the RSC. They have the resources, the actors, the designers, and Kathryn Hunter in the title role! It isn’t enough to simply do Timon. Help us to understand something we don’t already know: the play, our culture, the times we live in, sexual identity, greed, class, political struggle. This is a play that needs to have something to say.

Simon Russell Beale did a powerful version at the National in 2012, directed by Nicolas Hyntner, at the height of the Occupy Movement. The message, “we are the 99 percent” came through loud and clear. The intent of this production was not clear at all, and nothing Kathryn Hunter could do could help that.

Richard II, Royal Shakespeare at the Barbican

It wasn’t easy to get to see Richard II. It was sold out, so we figured we’d get day seats, something we’re quite used to doing. We figured Saturday would be good. Two performances, matinee and evening, thirty tickets each. Horrible weather, surely we’d get tickets? We arrived an hour early to a sight usually associated with rock concerts. People lying on the floor, the queue snaking around and around and around. It seems that that the actor playing Richard, David Tennant, is a teenage heart throb; who knew? We counted the queue, turned around and went back to the flat. On Monday morning, the weather even more blustery, we tried again, getting there even earlier, and this time, we were successful, barely.

I regret to report that the production was disappointing. The staging was static, with the actors forming an arrangement in front of a projected backdrop, and pretty much staying that way for each scene. The lines were delivered emphasizing the verse over the meaning. Perhaps to compensate, the pace was leisurely, with lots of pauses. We have been so used to seeing London productions of Shakespeare that whip along, finding new rhythms and new meanings, that I was really quite surprised. This seemed a throwback to days I had thought long gone, when The Bard was done with dignity. The design was all towering steel pillars and a metal platform wide as the stage that glided up and down. It was a lot like the Barbican, but did nothing to help us understand the play. It turned out that David Tennant was really the redeeming element – not so much in the first half, when he went along with everyone else providing formal stage pictures and stately speeches, but in the second half, he came into his own with the wonderful introspective soul-searching set pieces that Shakespeare gives Richard when he undergoing his extended fall.

A corridor in the Barbican

A corridor in the Barbican