While the more well-known Macbeth and As You Like It get the star treatment on the Bard on the Beach mainstage this year, over at the more intimate Douglas Campbell Theatre, the annual Shakespeare festival presents one of the Bard’s lesser known works.
Shakespeare’s 32nd play (he wrote a total of 37 in his lifetime), Timon of Athens is the story of Timon, a beloved citizen of Athens who spends his entire fortune on corrupt hangers-on only interested in getting the next payout.
Playing the title role, in this re-worked version from a female perspective, is award-winning actor, Colleen Wheeler. Wheeler also appears in the Aristophanes’ comedy, Lysistrata, on alternating nights.
In this Q&A, we find out more from the actor about her starring role in Timon of Athens, and the challenges it presents.
This interview has been edited.
Tell me about your character and what intrigues you about the role?
Timon is a wealthy woman who gives generously to her friends and when that generosity is not returned, she loses everything because of them. It sends her into an existential crisis of sorts. She isolates herself mentally and physically from the rest of her community. And even though she is entreated by her community to return to Athens and live well again, she chooses not to.
It is intriguing because there is no easy answer or tidy bow to this story. There are no overtly redeeming qualities to the character. We go through a journey that doesn’t have a happy ending. In fact, it is a very dark perspective and it doesn’t change.
Timon of Athens is not a well-known Shakespeare work, what have people perhaps overlooked?
I don’t know about what people may have overlooked but our production, like most others, is heavily adapted and cut down. Without giving too much away, our production distills the play down by taking out the intermission, taking out the subplots, and pushing ahead with her story to make it one continuous act.
What is the director’s vision for this production?
Director Meg Roe says: “It is difficult to pin down its themes. Working on it, I’ve been wondering about redemption, greed, agency, capitalism, friendship, altruism, generosity, societal obligation, nihilism, money. I’ve been thinking about the rotten systems at work in Timon’s world, and how they might reflect our own institutions and structures.”
I suppose this is the part where I say Timon is a difficult play for our difficult times. Which it might be. We are certainly in a time of interrogation, of reflection, of examination of our part in society and how it works, how it works on us.
I think of Timon as a parable, but I’ll leave you to fill in the moral at the end. In my opinion, that is the most difficult part.
There are more women than men in this cast. What is that like?
It is a welcome reversal to have the women playing all the interesting roles that are traditionally played by men, and the two men in the cast playing small roles that are traditionally played by women. And this interpretation of Timon of Athens is coming from a female perspective. But the themes of greed, capitalism, friendship and all the other themes we are exploring, are human issues that we can all relate to, regardless of gender.
How do you juggle rehearsals for Timon of Athens and Lysistrata?
They split the rehearsals up at Bard so we spend three or four days on one play, and then switch to the other. If you have a lot to do in each on it can be very tiring and hard to switch gears. I have quite a bit to do in each so I am a bit tired. But these two classic plays on the Howard Family stage are being interpreted with fresh perspectives that directly relate to the times we are living in and it makes for exciting and vital theatre.
Timon of Athens opens at the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival on July 10 and continues in repertory with Lysistrata until September 9. Visit bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.