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Timon of Athens review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘Kathryn Hunter’s magnetic performance’

Kathryn Hunter in Timon of Athens at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Simon Annand

While David Edgar’s take on A Christmas Carol plays on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s main stage, the Swan is home to Shakespeare’s (and most likely Thomas Middleton’s) tale about money’s capacity to corrupt. It makes for a complementary piece of programming.

Kathryn Hunter has been cast in the title role and the gender switch once again shines a new light on the text. Hunter is Lady Timon here, a wealthy Athenian who gives her money away freely, acquiring a circle of grasping hangers-on and false friends, hungry for her patronage. Once she has rid herself of her fortune, she sees the true nature of those who surround her.

Simon Godwin’s production is high on style. In the opening scenes, everything about Soutra Gilmour’s set and costumes shimmer and gleam, from the goblets to the jewellery to the snakeskin trousers one of the character’s sports; a metallic backcloth, beautifully lit by Tim Lutkin, glows first gold than silver. After the interval, all of this conspicuous opulence falls away as Timon retreats from society.

Hunter is magnetic and intense as Timon, supple and spontaneous; there’s a warmth to her performance, even as her character descends into a pit of pessimism about humanity. Patrick Drury is suitably dignified as her steward Flavius. Greek music, strikingly sung by Dunia Botic, adds energy and atmosphere.

But Godwin’s production, though slick, is also timid, particularly in the obligatory, awkward RSC mob scene. Having the rebels sport ‘gilet jaunes’ and bandoliers and make fist-in-the-air salutes feels superficial at best, crass at worst. Often the production seems driven more by aesthetic than emotional coherence.

Hunter is compelling and human, her delivery musical, her performance magnetic, though small in stature she fills the stage, but though one scene sees her flinging bowls of blood (rather than rocks) around in rage and dismay, the production itself is overly tidy and polite.

Simon Godwin: ‘As a director, you’re always trying to find your niche’

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Kathryn Hunter is magnetic in a stylish but overly polite production