Culture Editor Olivia Boyce interviews award-winning actress Kathryn Hunter ahead of her performance as Timon in the RSC’s new production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens
Olivier Award-winning actress Kathryn Hunter has played many of theatre’s greatest roles, from her acclaimed performance in Kafka’s Monkey to a gravity-defying performance as Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Julie Taymor. No stranger to the RSC, having starred in productions including Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear, Kathryn is now in rehearsals for the production in which she will soon take to the stage of the Swan Theatre, this time playing the formidable Timon in a new production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known gems, Timon of Athens. Culture Editor Olivia Boyce sat down with Kathryn to discuss her upcoming performance, advice for those wanting to enter the profession, and just what it is that leads her to return time and time again to the RSC.
Olivia: You are currently in rehearsals for Timon of Athens, in which you will be playing the title role. How are you finding the rehearsal process so far?
Kathryn: I’m loving it. There’s a fantastic team of people, and that makes all the difference. Our director is wonderful and there’s a lot of trust, so we can go and discover the play. If there’s trust, then even if you hit bits where you are less certain, it’s a glorious thing. I think that comes across in a production. You must have seen productions where you think ‘there’s something weird about this’, and then you discover people aren’t quite on the same page.
Olivia: It’s been quite a while since we’ve seen a major production of Timon of Athens, either on the RSC stage or elsewhere. What do you think it is about this play in particular that leads to it being one of the lesser produced Shakespeare plays?
Kathryn: It may be because it is thought to be co-authored by Middleton, but we do also know that Shakespeare is definitely there. It’s probably one of the later plays, and I think it was thought of for a long time as unrelentingly dark and pessimistic.
When I first read it about 10 years ago, I didn’t see that. You know how it is – people form an opinion, such as Beckett is doom and gloom, but when you actually do it he’s not the poet of despair. His work is actually really inflected with light and hope and faith in humanity, and I think the same applies to Timon of Athens.
It begins with somebody who has a credo: that all human beings are good, that this is our nature, that we are capable of great generosity, care and compassion for each other. Timon’s credo is that we should share – it’s almost socialist, or a kind of Christian socialism. It’s that wonderful ‘we are born to do benefits’ – that’s what we were born for. I love that in Shakespeare, all these kinds of big questions that we have, such as what we are doing and why? We’re born to do benefits – that’s it. As long as we’re caring for each other and doing things for other people, we’re on the right track.
Timon gets betrayed by her friends, and something is so cracked that she reverses her credo. She says ‘let’s get rid of human beings as a species, and let us have the world ruled by animals. Human beings are vicious, selfish, egotistical… let’s get rid of them.’
However, when you come to do the play, you realise that although she’s become this “Misanthropos” hater of mankind, when people come to visit her and she says she wants to be alone, she keeps engaging with them. There’s something in her that can’t help engaging with people, looking to teach them something, to share something, or to reverse their logic.
Then of course, the suicide could be seen as a big dark ‘oh my god, have I come to the theatre and paid 20 quid to hear somebody cursing and then committing suicide – please!’, but myself and the director feel that Timon’s suicide is a kind of a letting go. Timon, as I’m playing her, seems to say, ‘it’s not in my time to create this utopia – maybe the people who come after will embrace it’, and that’s what we’re trying to give in the play. There is a huge amount of light. And the other delight is that, in the second half, which again by reputation is known as curse after curse, there’s lots of humour, and that’s very Shakespearean, such as the gravediggers. There’s that sense with Shakespeare where you are appalled at what human beings can do, and then go, but humans are ridiculous and wonderful as well.
Olivia: You mention this play as having these extremes of light and dark moments – what is it like as an actor, to play Timon throughout the journey that she goes on, from the trusting philanthropist to someone who seems to oppose everything they once stood for?
Kathryn: To rationalise it, I’ve created a backstory. Perhaps she’s lost her family, and so she creates a new family with her friends and this community, and has found a reason for living as one does sometimes. When there’s been a trauma, you go ‘I’ll put all my energy into this.’ Once that is destroyed, there’s this great crack – that’s how I justify it. I think, as Apemantus says, ‘The middle of humanity thou never knewest’ – she’s a little bit a nature of extremes. In modern terms, maybe we might say bipolar, or perhaps an element of that, from these big highs of living to a darkness, somebody who has that in their psyche. Of course, Shakespeare didn’t use those terms, but you sort of sense it. It’s a process of discovery. At first I thought ‘hate, hate… oh my god, hate.’ But hate… you think, what is hate? It’s usually grounded in pain – perhaps there’s other kinds of hate, but I think the root of hers is in pain. She thinks, ‘to free myself of that pain of rejection in a way, I arm myself with this’ – ‘I don’t need anyone, I have a plan’ – so it’s somebody working something out, and hopefully that journey is something that the audience can follow. We’ve all been on journeys, whatever age you are, of this works, that doesn’t work, how do I strategise?
Olivia: Do you think that there is something within this play that speaks to our contemporary moment, that there are things that chime with and move audiences today, given the world we live in currently?
Kathryn: I do think so, completely. Maybe you should tell me, as a younger person, but… every age people say, ‘god, we’re in a bad way’, but there does seem to be a crisis of – what are our values? I think there’s a lot going on, with this idea of ‘let’s give power to the people’, that we don’t have to accept politicians knowing what’s good for us and what’s bad for us. This very simple notion of ‘we are born to do benefits’ I think is going on in all kinds of movements, whether it is Greenpeace, or trying to protect refugees and create movements that care for the passage of people, that people flee their countries for a good reason – there are all sorts of movements that really are about caring. I watched a programme about Obama and about Obamacare, and how massively difficult it was to get off the ground, because of all of the people against it, and with just how much he had to negotiate. I sense that there’s a lot of fear in people, about security and protecting ourselves, but alongside this a sense in which we care about each other, and about the planet, and that we can do something. Would you say that’s right?
Olivia: Absolutely. As somebody who read the play for the first time quite recently, I definitely found it to be surprisingly relevant to our modern moment.
Kathryn: Tell me how, Olivia, what did you see?
Olivia: For me, I think it was this recurrent idea of a belief that humanity is inherently given to be good. That suggestion that we want to believe humanity is striving for a greater good, and a world that is striving to be as good as it can be for as many people as possible, I think chimes with Timon’s initial actions and generosity. It’s a conversation and idea I think is getting more difficult, that our news is saturated with instances of people doing the entire opposite of that, striving to divide and place one element of humanity above another through self-service. There’s a conflict that arises between that trusting personal belief in the innate goodness of people, and the evidence that we see that suggests this doesn’t apply necessarily to everybody – that what we view as good is not always what other people do, which I think speaks to the moral quandary of the play. How this belief in others and the betrayal of that can really affect a person’s psyche is powerful today particularly, and we see this politically and otherwise. It surprised me, reading it and knowing so little about it compared to other plays by Shakespeare, just how much it stayed with me afterwards, and that question of – why isn’t this a play we hear of more often, know more about?
Kathryn: Yes – and what I think is wonderful about Shakespeare is, there’s this idea of the microcosm and the macrocosm, the politics of the small p and the Politics of the big P. So, he writes of a community of friends, and Timon has this speech where she says, ‘We’re here for each other, like brothers.’ So if I thought, what if that were a political leader, talking to representatives at the UN, so the friends are the neighbour countries or the European Union – we are here to help each other, are we not? Is that the bottom line… or do we help each other only so far as it suits us? Do you see what I mean?
Olivia: Yes, that double-edged sword of is it personal gain or global interest that we act upon?
Kathryn: Absolutely. So, it’s a play about values in the end, and what it means to be honest about those.
Olivia: Within this production, we have Lady Timon as opposed to Lord Timon, and though this is quite a revolutionary choice for this play, in actuality you’ve played roles within Shakespeare traditionally played by men many times before, such as Puck and Lear. Simon Godwin (the director of Timon) has said before that there are a lack of roles for women within the canon, particularly as they get older – do you think casting such as this goes some way to addressing that?
Kathryn: I think it does. I really commend Greg Doran’s approach, that it has been the policy this season to address that balance in terms of representation. After that, it goes further afield, in terms of representation of other cultures. Theatre is a place of the imagination, and by re-gendering in any form – I’ve seen Mark Rylance play Cleopatra and Adrian Lester play Rosalind – it’s just a kind of a new way of seeing. As long as it is done hopefully well, I think it makes you curious.
Olivia: A sort of breathing new life into a piece people think they know, perhaps because of a specific way they’ve seen it done, rather than as it could be done differently now?
Kathryn: Exactly. I am playing Timon as a woman, but I did play Lear as a man, because I think he’s so patriarchal, as is Richard the Third. I think that, when women play men’s roles as men, there’s this… I remember playing Richard the Third, and the seduction scenes, I found really easy. I thought, why is that? I suppose, playing women and as women, you’ve been on the receiving end and you know the tricks, so you can go, oh yeah, and they were really fun to play.
Olivia: It seems almost fortuitous that you returned to the RSC in the season that Simon is directing Timon of Athens – I wondered what it was in particular that we see with the RSC, seeing actors returning season after season, whether there’s something about the RSC that appeals particularly to you as an actor and that keeps bringing you back?
Kathryn: I suppose it has to be that, though it sounds a cliché, there is this mysterious writer. Stratford is this extraordinary place, where you can discuss and do Shakespeare, and out come the treasures. I know it is a cliché, he’s our great writer and other cultures have extraordinary writers too, but there is such a richness and depth on every level: social, political, psychological, story, that you keep returning to like a treasure. And then there’s the community – at first you think, oh my god Stratford is so small! Actually, the attraction is this community of people who are looking into this treasure chest and going ‘how can we share it?’. That focus is fantastic.
Olivia: The RSC do have this commitment to performing the breadth of Shakespeare’s works, and creating a catalogue or record of them as performed today, and with that we see the RSC cinema broadcasts. I wondered, as an actor, whether that changes the way you think you’ll perform, and how early on those considerations happen?
Kathryn: At this stage it is really about playing the space, The Swan. With A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julie Taymor’s one, she had an amazing crew because of course she’s done film. They filmed the show with lots of cameras, and then we’d come in during the day and do pickups, close-ups, though I don’t know if that will happen here. It was puzzling to begin with, as you think, do I play to the camera or…? So, you’d slightly take it down for camera, make it more focused, but then if there are pickups or close ups, then you really can focus the energy, as of course there has to be a sending it out in normal performance. It is an adjustment, but it’s exciting. Initially, people were very ‘theatre is theatre’ and ‘film is film’, but I think in our age it will only be a wonderful thing if people who might not come to the theatre get to see it, and go ‘oh, maybe next time I’ll go to the theatre and see what it is like to see it live.’ I wouldn’t be puritanical about it.
Olivia: Do you have a favourite moment, character or line that you’ve found, or one that sticks with you after you go home from rehearsals?
Kathryn: Oh my goodness, does it change every day…?
Olivia: It’s one of those awful, tricky questions!
Kathryn: Yesterday’s one… Timon is digging away, and talks to the earth. He is saying ‘give me a root, give me – let’s have a turnip, just one little turnip, I’m hungry’, talking to the earth. Then he says ‘oh by the way – no more bring forth ingrateful man.’ It’s quite shocking, he says
‘Ensear thy fertile and conceptious womb;
Let it no more bring forth ingrateful man.
Go great with tigers, dragons, wolves, and bears;
Teem with new monsters, whom thy upward face
Hath to the marbled mansion all above
Timon is full of this plan suddenly – lets not only end all human beings, but lets have all the animals ruling the world, and lets create new ones! Even in madness and distress, there’s a kind of invention there, so that was yesterday’s one.
Olivia: I can imagine it’s a delight every day to do different bits and pieces of the play, and that during a long run that you find things that change, that you see in a new light?
Kathryn: Oh god yes – are you a performer?
Olivia: I’m not, but I’m a forever theatre lover, and more often than not in the audience as a critic, which I think is seen as the bane of many a performer’s existence! (Kathryn laughs). Somebody said to me once, ‘you’re remarkably nice for a critic’, which I found funny, but I think that comes from being aware of the work that goes into creating each performance. There can sometimes be a failure in criticism, and more broadly, to acknowledge that there is so much more than what we see happening in the moment, that there is so much that happens to create that piece. It devastates me, and I can imagine it does actors such as yourself as well, to know that there is this tendency to forget that actors work so hard beyond the stage, that there are people in the wings, in lighting, in sound, in staging, in the creative process… it’s a frustration to see those people often not get acknowledged. Luckily, we’re seeing this discussed more, with social media and the RSC, the National Theatre, covering the teams backstage and giving a glimpse at the people involved. I think with that, and by talking to performers and creatives, we’re seeing this growing understanding of performance as more than simply spontaneous.
Olivia: Finally, to draw everything together, I’m going to ask another of those tricky awful questions – if you could give a single piece of advice for prospective actors and theatre students, what do you think that would be?
Kathryn: I would say, to encourage you to believe that we need to tell stories, and to find the stories that you need to tell and that you think need to be told. Find your connection to them, and of course this will make a difference. We need stories – they’re another kind of nurture, and we need to keep believing that.
Timon Of Athens runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, from December 7th to February 22nd. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.