Theatre review: Shakespeare's Timon of Athens on DVD
Timon of Athens is a fascinating Shakespeare play, in some ways atypical of his work and rarely performed, but all the more intriguing for that. Written around the time of King Lear, and probably in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, it likewise questions the issue of the nature of man to be disposed towards kindness and generosity or meanness and self-serving greed. It's a worthy subject and the answer is of course not quite as binary as that, which leaves a lot of room between extremes for the mature playwright to explore.
The opposing views are laid out perhaps a little academically in the first scene and perhaps in the whole first half of the play. Timon, a wealthy nobleman in Athens - played here as a Lady rather than a Lord - is having a feast gathering poets, painters and jewellers who all flatter him. Her goodness and kind generosity is unquestionable, bestowing money and gifts on his friends without asking for any favour in return, but there's very definitely the suggestion that it attracts those who wish to benefit from her generosity whose sincerity and artistry less reliable. It's even suggested that great wealth attracts vulgarity.
That's quickly pointed out by Apemantus, a philosopher fulfilling the traditional role of the fool here, who is not exactly one to mince words when pointing out truths. Again with a female playing the role, Apemantus has a rather more cynical view of human nature, seeing people as untrustworthy, quick to lies and deceit, their friendship paid for with bribes, even if they each side refuse to acknowledge it that way. "O, that our ears should be to counsel deaf, but not to flattery", she observes when Timon fails to heed her warning that she will end up selling herself away. That is of course what happens and when the time comes to pay the debts she has run up, Timon is sure that she can rely on her good friends to come running to her aid.
There's definitely a Lear like quality to how Timon's flattering friends shun him and he plunges from a great height into misery and a dark misanthropic view of mankind. While it does address certain aspects of morals and society, Timon of Athens however feels more like a treatise than a play, coming across even like a religious parable like The Prodigal Son, but with a different outlook on the true nature of people. "Who would not wish to be from wealth exempt, since riches point to misery and contempt," observes Timon's faithful steward Flavius, who determines to follow his master, not so much like Kent in King Lear to protect him from what must follow, as to observe how life treats one too generous.
If the first half feels like it poses an academic question about human nature, society and its relationship to money, the second half of the play at least has a little more Shakespearean wit and contemplation about it. It captures the essential nature of Timon, which is not vanity and love of flattery like Lear, but idealism; a belief that everyone should give freely without conditions. He sticks to those principles even as he is cast adrift from society, an outcast and madman. Recognising the truth, he hates the nature of the world and its people back and there is much humour in his insults to all and sundry. It's a tricky role to balance and make human, but Kathryn Hunter delivers the insults and the truth of Timon's perspective well. Money has no value compared to love, duty, honesty and respect, and the failure to learn these values is what leads man against man into wars.
Timon of Athens is a problem play in terms of it being laid out more like a philosophical discussion with a parable for illustration, and it even feels like a theatrical experiment rather than a drama that can be played naturalistically. Director Simon Godwin (who did a fantastic Hamlet at the RSC a few years ago) manages to bring it brilliantly to life, letting the extreme dialectical structure remain in place but finding other ways to explore the underlying meaning of the play despite its lack of dramatic action. He heightens the opulence of the first half with golden brightness, the frequent asides and observations made to the audience captured in pauses, freezing and separating them from the drama in a way that makes the pronouncements and commentary of Apemantus seem even more detached and cynical, something Nia Gwynne does very well; brutally even.
The subsequent complicated interweaving of Timon's servants attempting to borrow money to pay her immediate debts is likewise done in a series of what almost feels like cinematic montage. The overlapping denials of support from Lucia, Lucullus and Sempronius feel even more cumulatively crushing by freezing each scene and cutting between them rather than them being presented one refusal after another in succession. The dramatic presentation of the problem play is not wholly successful, lacking the overlapping narrative complexity and depth of its almost contemporary King Lear, but this production certainly reveals the corresponding merits and characteristics of this neglected Shakespeare play, as well as its distinguishing features.
The RSC's 2019 production of Timon of Athens is released on DVD by Opus Arte. There is no High Definition version available on physical media, but it should be available in HD on streaming sites like Marquee-TV. In NTSC format for international compatibility, the image isn't at all bad for a Standard Definition presentation and there are no actual technical issues. Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks are available and the text is always perfectly clear, with an extra punch to the Greek-influenced music score and balalaika playing. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The DVD is dual-layer and region-free. Extra features on the disc include a short interview with Kathryn Hunter, a look at the Swan Theatre, the slightly more intimate second stage at the RSC that is more often home to other Elizabethan and Restoration dramas as well as some newer works.