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Timon is a gold standard play for today

Timon of Athens, Swan Theatre, Stratford, to Feb 22.

Gold is everywhere. Gold goblets and plates are laid out along a table almost the length of a cricket pitch. To the right, a gold-plated plinth is topped by the entwined twigs and stems of an elaborate, gold-plated plant-cum-bush. At least one assumes that it’s plated. ”All that glisters is not gold”, as Shakespeare put it in The Merchant of Venice. He also wrote this play, albeit in collaboration with Thomas Middleton. Perhaps he needed a bit of a rest, having just finished King Lear. Timon of Athens lacks the poetry or profundity of Lear or, indeed, his other three great tragedies. But, by my troth, a play set in the birthplace of democracy seems strangely relevant to our times. Greed is rampant. So is deprivation. There are rumours of unrest on the streets. Not that you’d know it here in the palatial dining room of Timon. That’s “Lady Timon” to the likes of you and me. The leading part is played by Kathryn Hunter, a diminutive figure with a resonant voice. Initially she sports a gold dress, later in a shabby shift. There’s almost desperation in the lavish hospitality that she bestows on rich but ultimately disloyal and ungrateful “friends”. She’s desperate to be loved. But when reckless spending turns to mounting debt, no whip-round is forthcoming from those who have wined and dined at her expense. Her loyal steward Flavius is touchingly played by Patrick Drury, initially in a sensible suit, collar and tie. He has the air of a Chancellor worried about balancing the budget and warning of austere times ahead. Apemantus also sees what’s coming. Nia Gwynne plays the role with a puritanical and cynical detachment that makes it all the more touching when an increasingly desperate Timon suddenly hugs her in the play’s second half. By that time the once-grand lady is living outside the city walls, swearing a terrible revenge on its inhabitants. Yes, she’s down-and-out. Yet while digging for vegetation to subsist on, she comes across a metal box. Guess what? It’s full of gold. This time she bestows it on a heavily armed band of revolutionaries in yellow jackets – or gilets jaunes as they say in 21st century Paris rather than ancient Athens. Yes, it ends in death. For Timon at least. And, no, it doesn’t seem as tragic as Lear or Hamlet. Yet this is still very much a play for today.

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Picture: Simon Annand (c) RSC

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