28. Timon of Athens
My only previous encounter with Timon of Athens was seeing the 2018 RSC production, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Kathryn Hunter. I remember enjoying this production and finding it very visually striking, so was interested to see what my opinions of the text would be.
On the whole, I think this is a very solid play. It doesn’t elicit the powerful, punch-to-the-stomach, emotional response of Shakespeare’s great tragedies but it is an interesting exploration of money, influence and friendship. It is more allegorical than most of Shakespeare’s plays. You feel like there is a lesson to be learnt from the play – though, as usual, you can find multiple different and potentially conflicting lessons, depending on your perspective.
On the one hand, this is a story about the fickleness of political and social friendships. Timon is a wealthy lord of Athens, who generously distributes gifts to his society friends. They flatter him and he believes (or wants to) that he is genuinely loved by them. His generosity eventually overreaches itself and he is suddenly in desperate need of money to pay of his debts. But when he looks to his friends for help, they turn their back on him and give him no aid, despite the fact that they are still benefitting from Timon’s gifts. So, on one level, Timon is ruined by the selfishness of his friends. He is the victim of a society that takes but isn’t prepared to give.
In this respect, it feels like quite a timely piece. We do seem to be living through a period where people are much more inclined to take than to give – or when they give it is ultimately for some ulterior motive. (Or maybe that’s just my cynicism!) Acts of open kindness and generosity do feel a bit thin on the ground currently. This play chimes with that, in a bitterly satirical way, by suggesting that generosity doesn’t pay. That those you are kind to will ultimately forget you and abandon you. Which is a pretty bleak thought really!
On the other hand though, we have to remember that Timon did ultimately put himself in this position. His steward had repeatedly warned Timon that the coffers were running dangerously low; that he simply could not afford this continued excess. How much were Timon’s actions truly generous? How much were they actually a massive ego trip? A way of buying friends, influencing people and living the high-life? Living an unrealistic and unsustainable dream of frivolous wealth. Timon was ultimately responsible for spending and giving away money that he simply did not have. As much as his friends do act despicably, can he really blame anyone but himself?
And this, I think, is the really clever and heart-breaking core of this story. Much as Timon rails against the ingratitude and degradation of Athens, wishing plague and war on its citizens, deep down one feels like he knows that this was all his own fault. To a large extent, blaming others is the easy option for Timon. Disappearing into the wilderness is also a cowardly choice. Rather than facing his problems, Timon runs away from it all and (seemingly literally) buries his head in the sand!
It is also a piece that is well worth looking at for under-used audition speeches. There are some really punchy (and lengthy) monologues that give a lot for an actor to get their teeth into. Plus, gender plays very little part in the play so it lends itself very easily to cross-gender casting.
I like this play, without loving it. I find it an interesting one to explore and would be very up for directing it. There are certainly lots of questions to be explored in a rehearsal period and that’s always a must for when you are deciding whether a play is worth directing or not.