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The Folger Spotlight

Talking 'Timon' with Resident Dramaturg Michele Osherow, Part I

Folger Spotlight spoke with Resident Dramaturg Michele Osherow to get her perspective on Timon of Athens. Read the first part of our conversation here to find out what kinds of discoveries she is making with the cast, and then check back next week to learn more about her experiences exploring the language of this Shakespearean tragedy.

The company of Timon of Athens discusses the script with Michele Osherow. 2017.

What has the rehearsal process for Timon been like so far?

In Timon I was lucky because I had almost a full day with the actors around the table, which I don’t usually get, and we went through the script and we stopped and they asked questions at the time and it was open for general discussion.

What have you been learning through those discussions?

I think it is a really exciting play. I don’t think there is another play like it in Shakespeare’s canon, and the editors put it in the tragedies for a reason. We sat around the table, talking about if we feel sympathy for this man, and the consensus is absolutely “yes.” Everybody seems to have compassion for this guy who’s heart is broken by people he thought were friends. We haven’t been blind to things that Timon does wrong, but his wrongs are generous. Is he vain? Sure. Does he need to be the richest man in the room? Seems like he likes that position. But he does believe that he’s helping people. We feel for this guy, and we want the audience to feel for this guy, so we’re absolutely invested in treating the story as a tragedy.

Timon (Ian Merrill Peakes, seated) with Ventidius (Louis Butelli) and Alcibiades (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh). Photo: James Kegley.

And he does wind up in a very dark place.

Yes. But while Timon has some of the filthiest, nastiest curses of any Shakespeare character you’re ever going to meet, I feel like it comes from a place of pain and he’s lashing out the way a child does because he’s so wounded. What’s repulsive to me in this play is not Timon’s behavior, but the people who are calling themselves his friends. That’s an ugly story, but a story that’s worth telling.

Besides Timon, what else should audiences look for in this play?

There’s a great cynic in this play, Apemantus. I guess I’m at home with Shakespeare’s cynicism. His cynical plays are some of my favorites. I love seeing what’s happening with the truth-tellers in Timon—Apemantus and Flavius—who can see through all the artificial friends. Of course, Flavius isn’t cynical the way Apemantus is. It’s interesting to watch what their knowledge gets them, and who’s willing to hear that truth and who isn’t. Timon sure doesn’t want to hear it for most of the play, and when he finally gets that message, it absolutely destroys him.

What are you most excited about in this play?

This is not a line—I’m excited about everything in this play.  I think this play is fantastic. It is hard, and yes, the text is messy, but when you see the obsession with consumption and the way these friends are so false…there’s something about it that just feels so contemporary: the ease with which we use the word “friend” on Facebook and our obsession with stuff and material goods and the self-interest that is never going to leave humanity. The play compels us to think about what a friend looks like, and definitions of friendship. I’m really attracted to the play for that. I can’t wait to see how people respond.

Thanks so much to Michele for speaking with us! Be sure to check back next week for her thoughts on Shakespeare’s language. Timon of Athens begins performances on May 9. For tickets and more information, visit us online or call the Folger Box Office at 202.544.7077.