Power play: Obscure Shakespeare show confronts greed and gender

Founder of the feast: Kathryn Hunter, being held aloft, plays the wealthy title character in Shakespeare’s “Timon of Athens,” opening on Jan. 19 at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Fort Greene.
Photo by Henry Grossman

She’s got a heart of gold.

One of Shakespeare’s least-known plays will get a vital new staging this weekend, a revival that deals with gender, greed, and loyalty. The star of “Timon of Athens,” which opens at Fort Greene’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center on Jan. 19, says that diving deep into the canon offers a chance to break new ground.

“It’s exciting to welcome people to a play that they’re not familiar with, and don’t know the story,” said Kathryn Hunter, who plays the title character.

The play follows a wealthy Athenian who lavishes money on his friends, goes broke, and is abandoned by those same friends. He  retreats to the woods and becoming a misanthropic hermit, only to discover a hidden trove of gold there. For this production, Timon has been re-written as a woman — a change that still feels true to Shakespeare’s time, said Hunter.

“Originally, the female parts were played by men, so Shakespeare was always playing gender games. So in that sense, we’re very Shakespearean,” said Hunter.

The creators briefly considered having Hunter play the part as a man, a role she has taken on many times before — she played 11 male parts in “The Emperor” in 2018 — but decided that it would be more interesting with a woman in the lead, said the show’s director.

“At this moment in time, a woman playing it as a woman felt like the more audacious option, in a strange way,” said Simon Godwin, who developed the play with Hunter for a run with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2018.

Godwin is not precious with the words of the Bard, noting that Shakespeare himself was always experimenting with his plays.

“The more experimental and brave we are with them, the more I think Shakespeare-the-ghost likes us for that,” he said.

The show has undergone a few changes since its first production in England. It opens in Timon’s over-the-top home, featuring gold walls, gold chairs, and golden cups. For New Yorkers, the scene evokes the famously gilded accessories of Trump Tower, but Godwin toned down the set to downplay the connection.

“The set was actually much more gold, and we’ve made it more silvery this time in order to avoid too strict a parallel with Trump,” he said.

The play has a lot to say about greed and the power of money, but it is not particular to this time, or to this president, said Godwin.

“In the play, there are no easy symmetries,” he said. “Is Timon Trump? Absolutely not. But is there a resonance with the corrosive power of money? Absolutely yes.”

“Timon of Athens” at Theater for a New Audience’s Polonksy Shakespeare Center [262 Ashland Pl. between Fulton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Fort Greene, (866) 811–4111, www.tfana.org]. Jan. 19–Feb. 9; ; Tue–Fri at 7:30 pm; Sat at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sun at 3 pm. $90–$117 ($20 students or those 30 or younger).