Theatre review: Timon of Athens/The Taming of the Shrew

Timon (Nicole Cooper) falls on hard times in Timon of Athens
Timon (Nicole Cooper) falls on hard times in Timon of Athens
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What a swell party it is, in the first half of Jennifer Dick’s fascinating production of Timon Of Athens, playing at the Kibble Palace in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. There are bottles of fizz dotted everywhere around the elegant glass-house, sitting on little tables next to the wind-up gramophone and Timon’s box of jewels; for this production is set in the roaring 1920s, and imagines Timon as a gorgeous and privileged young hostess in a slinky white beaded gown, a little like Chekhov’s Ranevskaya in her utter indifference to the value of money, and of the priceless gifts she constantly gives away to her coterie of hangers-on.

Botanic Gardens, Glasgow ****/***

Petruchio (James Boal)  and Kate (Stephanie McGregor) in the Taming of the Shrew

Petruchio (James Boal) and Kate (Stephanie McGregor) in the Taming of the Shrew

Needless to say, the crash comes, complete with soundtrack from Wall Street in 1929; and it is heart-wrenching to watch Timon’s sunny and generous world-view decay into a bitter hatred of all humankind, as friend after so-called friend refuses to help her.

Timon Of Athens is not called one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays” for nothing; and the doom-stricken second half, in which the down-and-out Timon takes to the seashore and delivers roughly the same misanthropic rant to every passing acquaintance, tests the dramatic skill of Dick’s nine-strong company a little beyond its limit.

Yet there’s a riveting central performance from Nicole Cooper as Timon, with RCS student Rebecca Robin acting up a storm as her loyal servant Flavia. And if this is, as the company suspects, the first-ever professional production of Timon Of Athens made in Scotland, then that brilliant first act fairly whets the appetite for more interpretations of this most timely play about how great inequalities of wealth warp and destroy relationships, leading only to loneliness and bitter despair.

Outdoors in the garden, meanwhile, Gordon Barr directs an equally fascinating new take on The Taming Of The Shrew, complete with additional material from The Tamer Tamed, a counterblast to the play’s patriarchal attitudes written by Shakespeare’s contemporary John Fletcher. The show’s problem is that it doesn’t so much incorporate material from Fletcher’s play as bolt it on to the end; so that what we get is a fairly brilliant 1950s take on the Shrew – complete with set made from hair-raising Fifties adverts cheerily inviting men to beat up their wives for inadequate housework – followed by final scenes in which the female characters suddenly take a Lysistrata turn, and barricade themselves into a safe house, while demanding a better deal with their menfolk.

It all makes for a long, increasingly chilly evening. Yet young James Boal is as fine a Petruchio as you could wish to see, handsome, funny and credible; Stephanie McGregor a brilliant and touching Kate, truly bewildered by the brutality of the marriage system into which she has fallen. And with Beth Marshall in superb form as Kate’s mother, the story finally reaches a thoroughly satisfying conclusion; although if it were to do it 20 minutes earlier, I suspect the audience would be warmer, happier, and more satisfied still.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Both at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 8 July.