Tag Archives: Stratford upon Avon

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.

RSC: Tartuffe in Birmingham

Tartuffe (played by Asif Khan) takes a selfie.

The RSC’s new version of Molière’s Tartuffe is a remarkable piece of work. It transports the plot to Birmingham, and sets it in a Pakistani Muslim household. Tartuffe is a fake holy man, who has gained influence over Imran Pervais, and is imposing his fundamentalist version of Islam on the family, while he persuades his patron to sign over his possessions and give his daughter to him in marriage. All the while, he is attempting to seduce Imran’s second wife.

This displacement is a very apt parallel to Molière’s original Christian framework, but it could be undeniably tricky to pull off in these troubled times. And, of course, it needs to be funny! It succeeds thoroughly (and hilariously), thanks probably to the participation of Anil Gupta, co-writer with Richard Pinto, and Iqbal Khan, the director, who grew up in a in a Pakistani family in Birmingham. The script confronts preconceived notions and misconceptions of the audience head on, and manages to be educative and critical at the same time.

Parts of the script have a very loose relationship with the original, and others follow the dialogue quite closely. Most of it is in prose, rather than rhyming couplets, but there are passages that rhyme, and some rap sequences.

Darina, the Bonsnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

Darina, the Bosnian cleaner, played by Michelle Bonnard

The play opens with Darina, the Bosnian cleaning lady, with a monologue (not in the original) to help the audience get over some of their assumptions about what a Muslm family is like.   “Also, you should know, they are Muslims. It’s OK. Don’t be scared. I am Muslim too. You didn’t know Bosnians were Muslim? What they teach you in school?”

And that’s the spirit of the rest of the proceedings. Molière’s script, controversial in its time, provides a framework for satirizing hypocrisy and corruption today. It is clear that it is talking about corrupt elements within a community, not the community itself. And, by the way, it’s beautifully performed and staged. And very, very funny.

Taming of the Shrew, Trinidad Style

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Strolling along the Avon River on the way to see Miss Littlewood at the Swan, we chanced on an outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew by a little company from Trinidad-Tobago. I was fascinated, and only with regret tore myself away to go to our scheduled performance at the Swan.

The set was the most minimal imaginable: a gauzy cloth thrown over a tree branch forming an inverted V for entrances and exits. That was it. Calypso songs between the scenes commented on the plot, but Shakepeare’s text was otherwise unaltered.

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

And we understood every word, every idea, every joke Shakespeare wrote. How did they do it, despite Trinidad accents and 400-odd years of linguistic change? Simple. They spoke every line to the audience as if they really cared that we would understand. They played it like Vaudeville, glancing occasionally at the other actors, but talking to us.And they carried it off with swagger and panache, with that wonderful Trini calypso energy.

And in doing so, a lot of the troubling aspects of Shrew vanish. Hey, folks, don’t take this so serious! This isn’t sociology, this is WWE. Current champion, Katherine! Challenger, Petruchio! As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that this is how Shakespeare intended it to be played. Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (1592). I like to think that this was written for touring, when the company would set up in an innyard, or under a spreading oak tree, and try to engage and win over a crowd using time-tested techniques employed from before Aristophanes to Saturday Night Live.

I looked up the company on the internet. It’s called The Oratory Foundation (www.oratoryfoundation.com).

“The Oratory Foundation is a school with the mandate to touch and teach through oration and creative forms of the spoken word. It promotes and encourages the use of various forms of oratory; it is a teaching institution providing the opportunity for the pruning and perfecting of poetry, oratory and performance.”

The performance we chanced upon is part of a series of free outdoor productions sponsored by RSC called The Dell Open Air Theatre (https://www.rsc.org.uk/events/the-dell). ”

“On weekends during June, July and August, our outdoor theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Dell, hosts a range of lively student, community and semi-professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The Dell was launched as part of the Complete Works Festival in 2006 and has hosted more than 300 amateur theatre companies, community groups, schools, universities and professional theatre companies to growing audience numbers of all ages.”

What a good idea.