Timon of Athens, RSC, Stratford - review
More theatre lovers than me, surely, will have consulted Google before setting off to see this seldom performed Shakespearean comic-tragedy.
It is described as one of the Bard's 'problem' plays, not easy to classify, with the poetry lacking the emotional hit of others perhaps, but there's still a lot to like about this parable of our troubled times.
Under Simon Godwin's direction, the gilets jaunes brigade in their yellow hi-vis vests make an appearance, very hot-off-the-press but a perfect fit as Alcibiades' band of revolutionaries.
Storywise, the play is a game of two halves, the first a tale of extravagant living which sees the absurdly generous Timon doling out money and gifts with abandon at a lavish dinner, despite warnings by her loyal steward Flavius that she has no money left to spend.
The message of gross excess is echoed in the richly decorated set, with Lady Timon and her guests dressed from head to toe in shades of gold. When her debts are called in at last, she expects help from those who have feasted at her table so well. She is sorely disappointed.
The enraged hostess calls another 'feast' but instead of fine foods she serves her so-called friends bowls of steaming blood, cursing their false flattery before fleeing Athens to live in the forest.
The second half is as dark as the first is glittering, with the diminutive Kathryn Hunter, as the humiliated grand dame, squatting Gandhi-like in the dirt dressed in rags.
Railing against the hypocricy of mankind in her filthy hovel, there are unavoidable parallels with Leah's agonies on the heath but for Timon there is no 11th-hour redemption. Hunter is magnificent as the fallen aristocrat, able to make us laugh with a glance and a sly smile even in her degradation.
A previous RSC production placed the action in the world of pre-crash London but here the location is definitely Athens – Hunter herself is of Greek parentage – with overtones of the ongoing financial fate that nation suffered in the debt crisis of 2010 which brought it to the brink of being kicked out of the Eurozone.
On that occasion the European Parliament bailed them out. Cut to Brexit 2018 and the playing out of a very different outcome.
Other performances of note are Patrick Drury's attentive, dignified Flavius and Nia Gwynne's philosopher whose dripping sarcasm sounds all the more cutting in her native Welsh accent.
Runs until February 22.