BWW Interview: Kathryn Hunter Talks TIMON OF ATHENS
Kathryn Hunter returns to the Royal Shakespeare Company to take on the titular role in Timon of Athens. Simon Godwin's production marks the first time this play has been staged with a female lead at the RSC. Kathryn, however, is no stranger to taking on such parts.
Speaking during rehearsals, Kathryn shares what it's like to play King Lear and other traditionally male roles, as well as what she's discovering about Lady Timon.
What is your earliest experience with Shakespeare?
It's sort of indelibly marked in my memory. I was at secondary school and our set texts were Measure for Measure and King Lear. We had an extraordinary teacher called Miss MacDonald who was completely passionate about Shakespeare.
That story of King Lear made such an impression on me, even at 14. And that was partly because of the way she shared it with us, having us read it aloud. But what I remember was not identifying with Cordelia, but with Lear. And then many, many years later I would play that role.
Wow! What was your journey to that?
Well from then on, I always carried the story in my heart. So off I went to university and studied French and Drama and then I went to RADA. And you sort of entertain ideas about certain roles you might play and Lear was always there.
During my career, I collaborated with a wonderful Polish director Helena Kaut-Howson on her various productions. One day (without knowing my connection with the play), she said, "Would you play Lear?" I couldn't say no!
There's this notion that Lear is this sort of titanic, Blakean figure with a beard. And I was playing it as a man (because I felt that play is about a patriarchy and those values inherent in that), and trying to figure that out.
I remember walking around Leicester and I followed an old man who was very slight into Iceland. He had a wonderful dignity and I thought, if indeed he was surrounded by troops of a faithful order, why did Lear have to be large?
So that was my shape: there can be strength and fragility and it's Lear's passions that I should focus on rather than his physical being.
Since then, you've appeared as in various typically male roles: Lear, Richard III, and now Timon. Gender swapping on stage now is fortunately more prominent. But back then, you were really pioneering that.
I was 35 and this was like 30 years ago. So it was a very wild idea. Now, gender swapping is becoming more accomplished. Greg Doran is doing a wonderful thing here at the RSC with more gender parity on stage. But at the time it was like, "What?!"
To play Lear then, not only did you have to be a man but you should have played all the major Shakespearean roles before coming to Lear. It was terrifying. You could feel the audience go, "Oh, really?" And I think they came on board eventually.
Why do you think such gender swaps are important?
In the first place I think theatre is a place of the imagination. If an actor can imagine themselves that psyche, then you're liable to play it well and give insights, regardless of gender. So it should be an arena for all. And that's equally accorded for men playing women, often the other gender can throw light and other perspectives.
Also there comes a time when representation of women and people of colour has to be seen, it has to be evident. And it's not weird and it soon will become the new normal.
How familiar were you with Timon of Athens?
I had read it and I loved it and I directed it at RADA about 15 years ago.
So I was familiar with it and thought I knew it. Of course, you think you know a play and you don't at all! With Shakespeare particularly, there are so many layers so it's almost like coming to it completely new.
What drew you to the play?
I love its parable form. It kind of skirts a fine boundary between a psychological truth and another kind of truth which is like a story.
It's almost like a fairy-tale. You know, "Once upon a time there was a man...well, a woman! And she was very, very generous and gave away all her money. But when she lost her money, her friends betrayed her, and she was so devastated she left the city that she loved and she went into the woods..." (No more than that, no spoilers!) So those are kind of archetypal images.
But then there's a very modern, psychological reality as well. Through the parable you see that it's about our relationship to money, and how money changes and corrupts other relationships. And Shakespeare's father went bankrupt and suffered enormously, so that was a very close relationship that Shakespeare must have observed.
What were your impressions of Timon, coming into the play?
I think it's known for being the play where Timon just curses and curses and curses. And you think, "Oh my God, you paid good money to come and see somebody cursing! What kind of an evening is that?"
You might think with that cursing, Timon goes from a credo of love to a credo of hate. But I'm discovering that's not the case.
So how have your impressions changed then?
What I'm beginning to discover is that she says it is hate, "I don't want to see any money ever again and let all these beastly humans be eradicated." But when people come and visit her, she'll curse them but she engages with them.
There's always a concern. And as they come, they begin to change and learn things. So it's as much about the people who come and visit her in the woods and how they're changed, as about Timon. I think it would be a grim play, were it not for the fact that you feel this love under the curses. Those people who take over, Alcibiades and in our production that character is surrounded by a group of young people, they reclaim Timon's credo of love.
So there is a legacy and a socialist credo. Apparently Karl Marx used to often quote Timon of Athens when talking about corruptions and capitalism. So it's very rich and surprisingly funny!
You might not expect that from the play, that humour.
Exactly and yet there is real humour there. Even with tragedy, the absurd is never very far away. However tragic life can be, somewhere there's an absurd humour that accompanies it.
You know, Shakespeare was a supreme jazz musician. He wouldn't just play one tone, one dark, dark, unrelenting note; he knows to kind of vary it and find other notes, partly because that's how life is.
So with Timon there's that absurd irony. Like when she finds the gold and it's like, "I'm going to become a hermit. I'm going to be an ultra-vegan, far from the world. Oh, what's this here? Wait what is this?" It's like some kind of bad joke from the gods.
This isn't your first time at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Are you excited to be returning to the Swan?
Yes, I've been lucky enough to act and direct here before.
In the Swan, I performed in that space before in A Tender Thing, a play by Ben Power. I remember the first time going in there, you feel that there are ghosts, good ghosts of people who have played there. It just has that "actor's theatre" richness.
That space has real intimacy, but it is vocally quite demanding! Simon Godwin pointed out the other day that as a performer you have to share it all around. You get that same sense at the Globe, I played Richard III there and it's very similar in terms of inclusiveness as a space.
I found that at home, learning it in your kitchen you go, "Well, this speech is wonderful but I've said that already. Why is Shakespeare repeating himself?" And you realise exactly why on stage: this section is for the gods, this section is for the groundlings, this is for the people on the sides. It's to give you a chance to share it around.
Finally, any dream roles you'd like to take on in the future?
I'm curious about Prospero. But honestly, I'd love to do Lear again.
A few actors have returned to that in their careers, Ian McKellen did this year. And I directed a devised piece with Told By An Idiot called My Perfect Mind, so it was wonderful to revisit it that way. That's just a play you can revisit again and again.
Photo credit: Simon Annand