As far as we know, Timon of Athens was never staged in Shakespeare’s lifetime. It is rarely staged in ours. In terms of genre, it is akin to his late romances, beginning as a Ben-Jonson-style comedy and ending in Lear-like tragedy. As with Pericles and Two Noble Kinsman, it is a collaboration, and here the collaborator is Thomas Middleton.
The story was well-known to their contemporaries: the wealthy Timon (Kathryn Hunter) is known for her generosity, and much of the first half of the play focuses on her profligate philanthropy. The only people who have Timon’s interests in mind are her steward, Flavius (John Rothman), and the cynical Apemantus (Arnie Burton), who attends her banquet only to drink water and berate her obsequious guests. “It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in one man’s blood,” he says from his own, separate table.
Of course, as soon as the money runs out, Timon’s creditors arrive and the beneficiaries of her charity flee. One (Dave Quay) scolds her for her lack of prudence, another (Adam Langdon) proclaims to have only just invested all his cash and mourns his inability “to be kind.” A third (Daniel Pearce) asks why Timon did not go to other friends first, and upon learning that she did, he fumes: “Must I be her last refuge? … And does she think so backwardly of me now, / That I’ll requite its last.” Timon, who holds a sincere belief in “the riches of our friends,” is stunned, and after berating her former sycophants, she runs into the woods, a raving misanthrope writing her own epitaphs.
Simon Godwin has directed an excellent production, one that easily makes the case that Timon deserves more attention. His prime asset is Hunter, who is assuming the role of Timon after playing parts as diverse as King Lear, Cleopatra, and Puck; is there any modern Shakespearean with more range than she? As Timon, Hunter basks in her identity as a patron. In a telling moment, she says goodbye by sheepishly pointing to her cheek, asking for a kiss but also betraying how much she needs such validation. In the second half, her characteristic, frog-like croak suits the unfettered rage and misanthropy that dominates the character and, to a degree, even the play itself. Both Godwin and Hunter respect this dualistic quality, and both leave us with the sense that Timon of Athens is a complicated, fascinating, and undervalued work.
Timon of Athens ran through February 9th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.