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Timon of Athens at The Swan Theatre - RSC Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Famed Actor Kathryn Hunter In Lead Role
One of the great attractions for this new Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production is the casting of Olivier Award-winning actress Kathryn Hunter.

Timon of Athens, Kathryn Hunter, RSC, SImon Godwin
Kathryn Hunter returns to the RSC to play Timon


The diminutive and distinctive 61-year-old has been lured back to the RSC for this play directed by Simon Godwin, in which he has put women centre stage for a gender-swapping version of Timon Of Athens.

With the key players now females, it brings a fresh aspect to this historic work, believed to have been written together by Thomas Middleton and Shakespeare.

Making Timon a woman, along with her friends, the revolutionary Alcibiades and the philosopher Apemantus, isn't the only touch of modernity. Bringing it bang up to date are the revolutionaries wearing reflective tabards, in a nod to the yellow vest protesters seen in Paris so recently.

Audiences have the chance to see the RSC's Timon of Athens at the Swan Theatre in Stratford upon Avon until 22 February 2019. Although written originally about ancient Greece, Godwin has adapted the story to modern-day Athens, which fits well with the current times of austerity, unrest and anger over widening disparity between the poor and rich.

This story is after all about greed, friendship and who you can rely on when you have lost everything.

For those of you unaware of the story, it is about wealthy Timons, who pours riches and gifts on her friends, only to be left disillusioned when most of them turn their back on her when she is made bankrupt. Retreating to live in a shack in the woods, Timons uncovers a hidden chest of gold and is once again pursued by those who want something from her.

Timon of Athens, Kathryn Hunter, RSC, SImon Godwin
A tale about riches to rags


There's plenty of sharp contrasts as Timon moves from the rich list to a homeless recluse. The first section of the performance overflows with shimmering gold opulence and banquets, while after the interval, it's dark and earthy with soil scattered across the stage around Timon's makeshift dwelling.

Godwin has added various elements to try and add more pizzazz to the proceedings. Instead of water, an angry Timon throws striking red blood over the dinner party guests, and there's a lot of characters being frozen while other scenes or narration take place. I'm not sure that works so well as it did add a stutter to the pace in what was sometimes a slow first act.

Ultimately, it is Hunter that carries this production. She is an exciting, strangely beguiling presence on stage that commands your attention. Whether it's her raspy voice or chameleon nature (that can easily shift the character from proud to angry, vulnerable or weak), Hunter is always extremely watchable.

But then, this is a woman who won the Best Actress Olivier Award for her performance in The Visit at the Royal National Theatre in 1990 and has continued to gain acclaim through a glittering, versatile career that has also included a Harry Potter film and TV series Rome. Her RSC outings always draw attention and it was back in 2010 that she was in Stratford upon Avon playing the fool to King Lear at the Courtyard Theatre.

timon of athens, RSC, KAthryn Hunter, Simon Godwin
Opulence is replaced by dirt and a gritty attitude


It's clear that Hunter has a real sense of the audience around her. There were plenty of moments when she reacted to a stirring or gasp from the auditorium and responded with an ad-libbed comment or look to create a special connection.

She also had a capacity to create such emotion for the character when shown at her most vulnerable. Her size helps with that, particularly when she was curled up into a small ball while being attacked by debt collectors. At the same time, Hunter seemed to grow in stature when Timon becomes a more cynical, independent character, living in the woods in a macho outfit of headband and baggy sheet. Her whole attitude screamed 'don't mess with me' - and you really wouldn't.

Welsh actress Nia Gwynne also deserves a mention as straight-talking philosopher Apemantus who struts around with an air of contempt for the hangers-on with the right mix of aloofness and independence.

While the action can be slow in this new production, there's some fine acting and a chance to see Hunter transform the lead role into something distinctive that makes Timon's sex irrelevant.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
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Why? See the great actor Kathryn Hunter in modern version of Timon of Athens
When: Until 22 February 2019
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Swan Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From 5
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