Timon of Athens is nobody’s favorite Shakespeare. It’s half by another playwright, Thomas Middleton, for one thing; for another, it’s a fable about a guy turning into a mankind-hating hermit because his creditors dare to ask for their money back. Okay, so it’s relatable. But it’s also sloppy, a pale reflection of plays Shakespeare was writing at the time. Dating it is uncertain, but King Lear and Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra were probably Timon’s coevals, which spoiled the 17th-century theaters for choice. (There’s little evidence that it was even performed in his lifetime.) Our own hunger for Shakespeare means that the lesser plays get surprisingly regular outings—you can not turn around in this town without knocking over a Cymbeline. But even hunger doesn’t make this nasty, downhearted play taste sweet.
The Shakespeare-mad Theater for a New Audience isn’t going to let a little thing like “this play is kind of awkward” slow them down … and thank goodness for that. TFANA’s strong production with the British Kathryn Hunter as Timon makes the case for the play, and it grows slowly into its power. We don’t need to love it, but we can prize it for its little spates of wonderful language and its analysis, which is some of the bitterest in Shakespeare. Its light is reflected light, but you can still read the world by it.
Timon is a rich man. Or, in director Simon Godwin’s version, a rich and spectacularly generous woman. The play begins with a golden banquet at which she lavishes gifts on her fellow Athenian bigwigs, handing out jewels as party favors. Unsurprisingly, Timon is leveraged to her eyeballs, and none of her so-called friends will help defray her debts. Furious, she stomps off into the wilderness, choosing to copy her philosopher friend Apemantus (Arnie Burton) in reviling all humanity. In the woods, Timon still can’t catch a break: Digging for roots one day, she unearths a box of the very gold she now loathes. Her asceticism, contempt and isolation—she’s like a reverse Buddha—then begin to have a kind of religious effect on those who come visit her. (At one point, she’s so bitchy about money that three thieves voluntarily renounce their profession.) Athens itself ends up at her mercy when the disgruntled general Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown) marches on the city with an army of the dispossessed. Only Timon, Alcibiades’ old benefactor, could stop the massacre, but she’s happy for her hometown to reap the whirlwind.
Godwin’s production, originally mounted at the Royal Shakespeare Company and co-produced with D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company, has his careful stamp. He and Emily Burns have cut the text intelligently, interlacing some of the repetitive debt-collection scenes into Jacobean montage. (It might have been possible to slice it even closer to the bone—a little of that banquet scene goes a long way.) Casting Hunter was a masterstroke. She has one of the great theatrical voices (warm but with a sawtooth edge) and eyes that burn and hurt at the same time. She’s a very small woman—first a rail-thin fashion plate in her gold lamé dress, then a bones-and-anger zealot in the second half—and as she clambers in and out of the pit onstage, you actively fear for her.
Godwin’s American cast is uniformly beautifully spoken, and if there are confusing moments, we can place them at Shakespeare and Middleton’s feet. When Godwin directed Measure for Measure for TFANA, he captured a sense of argument that many directors don’t find in verse: You could feel actors handing ideas back and forth during the persuasion scenes, thoughts as tangible as objects. In Timon, the playwrights are stingy with such moments. This is a play with very little real conversation, so Godwin sometimes builds contact and exchange out of scrap. A terrifically moving rapprochement between Apemantus and Timon is extra-textual invention, for example, poignantly played by Hunter and Burton. And he makes the conversion of the thieves—Timon’s accidental act as moral savior—land with surprising weight. “There is no time so miserable but a man may be true,” a reformed criminal says, heading back into a city at war. Oof. I’m not saying this is a great play. But you have to meet a line like that with your whole life.
According to modern scholarship, Timon of Athens is probably 40 percent Middleton, 60 percent Shakespeare. The verbiage quants find Middleton’s compositional signature in the early sections—the urban satire, in particular. You don’t read the sensationalist Middleton to find wisdom: His Women Beware Women is pulp; his The Revenger’s Tragedy sneers at all human connection. Even seemingly loyal characters in Timon retreat into self-interest, and it might be Middleton’s more cynical influence that makes the play so wryly misanthropic.
Not that his co-author was being particularly cheerful. Shakespeare, they think, wrote most of the last two acts, when Timon becomes an angrier, saner version of King Lear. Lear lets his sorrow and his madness turn him into air—he gets lighter in the storm, frail enough that we see how nature can spin him’round. Timon, though, goes into the earth instead of the sky. He digs for two straight acts. He digs onstage, the hole where he finds the treasure chest and his occasional root; he digs offstage, where his favorite retirement project—his grave—sits close to the unseen sea. His vision is uncompromising and scatological: “The earth’s a thief / That feeds and breeds by a composture stol’n / From general excrement.” Did you catch that? Timon just told us that he’s been standing breast-high in shit. Even Beckett wasn’t that dark.
Sounds exaggerated, right? But we know what the wealthy do when they feel cheated and insulted. Let’s say they suffer a loss: a recession, a Panama Papers scandal, a slide in the price of oil. Like Timon, they’ll find new gold—there’s a level of riches that replenishes itself—but that fragile generosity of the flush days is gone. They don’t want to be told what they owe; they like the pleasure of charity, not the everybody-does-it, why-is-my-name-not-on-the-building boredom of proportional taxes. A morsel of disrespect makes them want to burn everything down. Timon invites Alcibiades to murder all of Athens. If there had been climate change denial or a Gawker lawsuit to fund, Timon would have found the coin for that too.
Timon of Athens is at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center through February 9.