The British director Simon Godwin has recast “Timon of Athens,” one of William Shakespeare’s least-performed plays, with a contemporary slant that streamlines the text and finds a core that could not be more relevant to these Trumpian times of economic inequality. The Royal Shakespeare Company production, which opened Sunday at Brooklyn’s Theatre for a New Audience following a successful run last year in the U.K., follows the reversals of Lady Timon (the great Kathryn Hunter), a free-spending aristocrat cast out of Athens and spurned by her friends when she is unable to repay her debts.
But first, we are treated to the great lady’s profligate ways — and to the sycophantic hangers-on who fawn over her and feign fellowship with each other as they lap up her largesse. The show opens with a great banquet with gilt furniture and gold goblets and guests similarly bedecked in delightfully gaudy outfits (by scenic and costume designer Soutra Gilmour) that suggest nothing more than a cocktail party in Trump Tower. (Servants even pass canapés to audience members in the first row.)
The superficiality of the occasion is interrupted only by the philosopher Apemantus (Arnie Burton), a curmudgeon who sees through his peers, and the do-gooder Alcibiades (Elia Monte-Brown), an advocate for “the dispossessed” — the homeless, the working class and the refugees with “no hope of citizenship” who soon arrive wielding protest signs that could have come from a Bernie Sanders rally.
But when Timon’s debtors demand repayment — and her erstwhile friends and benefactors refuse to bail her out — she finds herself cast out of the city, alone in the woods and suddenly much more sympathetic to the increasingly revolutionary viewpoint of Alcibiades and his army of outcasts.
Whether she is sponging up flattery or unleashing fury, Hunter in the title role is a lithe dynamo of energy whose command of the stage belies her diminutive stature. Her Act 2 exile to the wilderness, digging in holes and braying at the injustice of her plight, suggests a kind of first draft of King Lear’s retreat to the heath in the storm. (Hunter has actually played Lear, as a man.) There are other standouts in the cast, too, including John Rothman as the loyal servant whom she turns on and the trio of Shirine Babb, Dave Quay and Daniel Pearce as Timon’s all-too-fickle friends.
Godwin (and co-adapter Emily Burns) dispenses with many of the Bard’s subplots, intercuts scenes to cinematic effect and updates the action without overdoing the contemporary resonances. He also adds a Greek-tinged underscore by Michael Bruce, performed by a three-piece band and singer Kirsten Misthopoulos, that gives the production an authentically Athenian accent.
But in playing up the drama’s class conflict over economic inequality, Godwin and his team make a strong case for the relevance of “Timon of Athens” — and soft-pedal some of its shortcomings (including its narrative lumpiness in the second act). Shakespeare is like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed: There seems to be a takeaway lesson for every occasion, including the era of Trump. As one of Timon’s servants says late in the play, “You cannot make gross sins look clear and by striving make ugly deeds seem fair.”