Found: a Shakespeare play about student poverty in Canterbury

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Timon of Athens

There is an edgy play on now in Canterbury about student poverty and how it poisons friendship and mental health.‘Timon of Athens’ was one of Shakespeare’s final works, written in 1607. The Canterbury Shakespeare Festival, now in its fifth year, always looks for new angles, and mental health is one that unites three of the plays it is staging this summer — Hamlet and Lear as well as Timon.

Shakespeare was particularly drawn to such suffering, says Charlotte Groombridge, the University of Kent psychology graduate who is Managing Director of the 2019 festival. “When his son died, he went into depression,” she tells me during the interval as we sit by the Christchurch University duck pond, the outdoors stage set for ‘Timon’.

Every year the 60-strong group of Canterbury students and graduates likes to include a lesser known play in the repertoire. This year, Caitlin Welch, the Performing Arts specialist who graduated from Christchurch in 2018, took on the role of Director of ‘Timon’ and changed the play’s Senate references to ‘Students Union’. And this is how her interpretation is described on the festival website: “Timon of Athens – A Modern Account, follows Tai, a high achieving, popular student and his friends as they battle with financial misjudgements, depression and degradation of friendships. This dark, comedic play, using original text, portrays the trials and losses students across the country experience on a daily basis.”

It is an unsettling play, and I was even more disturbed to think that this kind of daily misery is happening here among our 40,000 Canterbury students. Surely university is one of the best experiences in life? And surely this comparison is overstated? But a leaflet is handed out at ‘Timon’, with excerpts of media reports about student depression, debt, ‘faeces infected water’ leaking into a shared flat, rooms-for-sex deals, rogue landlords and suicide.

Speaking to Groombridge and Welch, I realised that the problem is far more widespread than the mainstream media portrays. As a writer on money issues, I had always assumed that student debt did not routinely mean disruption for students. After all, mortgage-borrowers usually manage their debts without going into crisis. And, also, there is far more of an outcry about Universal Credit pushing claimants into debt and food banks than there is about students.

However, the real problem is that students and new graduates are so young that they have little experience of managing money, let alone £42,000 of debt or more. As a result, many of these teenagers and twenty-somethings will rapidly go into crisis. Welch, who is typical in owing £42,000, explained how one of the ‘Timon’ plot lines translates into student life. The Greek Timon used to lend money to his friends.  Students here, often house-sharing with five or six others, frequently do the same. “On average, four or five of those people will have a money problem during the tenancy,” says Welch. “They might borrow £10 each from the others so they end up with a debt of £70. They can’t pay it back. And it ends up with people moving out and not speaking to each other.”

Or as Apemantus, the philosopher character in the play, says:

“I wonder men dare trust themselves with men….
…the fellow that sits
next him now, parts bread with him, pledges the
breath of him in a divided draught, is the readiest
man to kill him…”

On the issue about why we know so little about the problems of managing student debt in comparison with Universal Credit, that could be because young people starting out on life do not know how to publicise and campaign on the topic. But, from what these two graduates say, the malfunctions are similar in each system. Universal Credit pushes people into sudden debt because it takes a minimum of five weeks for the first payment to arrive. And the student system for emergency funds typically takes eight weeks just for the notification to arrive that someone is potentially eligible, says Welch.

And having a huge debt is just “terrifying”, she adds. She and her friends dread the day that they have to start making repayments because it increases the financial pressures on them. Rents are rising, commuting costs are high — and most of these people have little chance of buying a home, despite their talents and hard work. With a mortgage, borrowers knows that they will most likely have a home to show for their sacrifices in the end. In contrast, with a student debt, graduates feel that they could be tripped up by it at any time. And the fact that they have the debt makes it less likely that they will ever feel able to afford a home.

So why did Welch want to work on this lesser-known play rather than ‘Romeo and Juliet’? “This is something that is still happening,” she says. “You don’t hear so much these days about family feuds and 13-year olds falling in love. But you do hear about people going broke and ending up on the street.”

‘Timon’ is being shown for free on various dates until August 11 when the festival ends. Tickets for it and the other plays — for which seats cost between £3 and £12 — can be bought on the website.

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