Bill Hicks, Texas-born comedian of the Outlaw School that flourished in the late 80s and early 90s, had an oddly abbreviated bit that he would trot out on occasion. He’d announce the creation of the People Who Hate People Party, founded by himself, and then quickly describe the fatal conceptual flaw. “Come together!”, he would implore, only to receive the inevitable and rather obvious response – “NO!”

And that bit jumps to mind as I listen to the climactic meeting in Timon of Athens between the title character, a misanthrope who has fled town in disgrace after a lifetime of careless generosity, and Apemantus, the philosopher who had made a career out of openly despising his fellow man. The meeting doesn’t go well, hardly better than that of Bill Hicks’ membership rally. Timon has no patience for Apemantus, “bred a dog”, who has never had anything to lose and who therefore risks nothing by striking a misanthropic pose. Apemantus, for his part, feels no empathy for a man who would still be a courtier but for a change in fortune – a fool before and after, unenlightened by his misery and acting on emotion. They could go further – Apemantus a low-grade moocher using philosophy to conceal his essential meanness of spirit, Timon a spoiled man-child whose life collapses when he discovers he can’t buy friends.

But it never gets that far – this is not truly an argument after all, and it dissolves in name-calling an rock-throwing. These aren’t misanthropes in any high-minded sense, but merely two souls suffering and inflicting pain. And that’s how William Squire and Peter Woodthorpe play the scene. It is a play with astonishingly little payoff, its ending unrelentingly grim. So the clash of two outcasts becomes its centerpiece, amid all the wild invective as only Shakespeare can write it, ultimately a showcase for isolation and despair.

William Squire is a great Timon – never losing the thread, so important, of Timon’s breeding. And Peter Woodthorpe’s Apemantus is wonderfully and savagely theatrical. Ironically, one of Shakespeare’s hardest plays, with an unfinished feel, due perhaps to its singleminded need to follow the Bard’s familiar theme of the social misfit to some bleak final chapter, is one of the Argo series’ best recordings.

Timon of Athens with William Squire, Peter Woodthorpe, Anthony White and John Wood.

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