STAGE REVIEW: Timon of Athens at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until February 22, 2019.

IT has be admitted at the outset that I had never even read the script of ‘Timon', let alone watched it in performance, before seeing this production.

This was proved to be considerably remiss of me as it was given a rapturous, and most deserved reception by a packed house in the marvellous setting of the Swan Theatre on opening night.

Fearing, or perhaps suspecting, it might be easy to lose the thread of the story and thus fail to appreciate the poetry of Shakespeare’s Jacobean imagery, those concerns quickly evaporated.

The direction, by Simon Goodwin, got everything right; from the casting, to the staging, and on to the musical accompaniment. And I found myself in wonderment that I could understand everything of all what was being said and all that was happening.

Forget Hamlet, Macbeth, and even Romeo and Juliet, this is a play to introduce the genius of Shakespeare to the next generation of students of English Literature.

Here, Lord Timon becomes Lady Timon, and if we can have a female hero, then we can have a female insurrectionist, Alcibiades, played by Debbie Korley as a black power leader from the 1960’s, complete with gloved clenched fisted salute and Marsha Hunt hairdo, from the iconic poster of the musical Hair.

At first sight the story is that of a simple fable; a rich man conned out of his fortune and abandoned to the bailiffs by sycophantic friends, extracts a terrible revenge on them.

Eventually, however, he finds ultimate purification when he is ashamed by the true devotion of his ancient slave. All this is acted out in a production which is full of joy and humour and which resonates so well with the modern world of the super- rich, of oligarchs, and leaders of nations who seem to be inhabiting a world of fantasy quite divorced from everyday reality.

From the very start, we get the sense that we are going to enjoy ourselves.

The music, composed by Michael Bruce, takes us into a Greek Taverna, where the waiters invite us to clap away, and a dance begins – with audience participation – but behind it all there is a feeling of dissonance. All is not quite in tune and there is mischief afoot.

A feast begins and the tragedy unfolds.

Here, Simon Goodwin, uses the stage equivalent of freeze-frame technology to allow the philosopher, Apemantus, played by Nia Gwynne, as a world-weary boyo from the Welsh valleys, to comment on the action while at the same time being still part of it.

Actors known as ‘Poet’ and ‘Painter’ present their flattering tributes. I could quite imagine Shakespeare himself taking the part of ‘Poet’, as he was reputed to have done, and enjoying the satire of it all, although I would have preferred a more ‘cod avant-garde’ painting from ‘Painter’.

In fact, I quite liked his effort; some satirical take on Picasso’s cubist era might have worked to better effect.

But the success of the production entirely belongs to Kathryn Hunter as ‘Lady’ Timon. After seeing her quite dominate the stage, I cannot now imagine the part played in any other way.

She used her diminutive frame to superb effect, all stick-like arms and legs like some Athenian Edith Piaf. Her husky voice captured her disbelief and rage against her erstwhile supplicants.

Yet her eyes and mobile face all the time kept the audience on her side, showing all the while that she fully understood just how ludicrous her situation had become once she was forced to leave her palace behind to inhabit a cave and tend to a dry and dusty vegetable patch.

The scene in which she trades insults with Apemantus is pure Shakespeare at his invective best. I found myself smiling all the time at the tour-de-force that she was giving us, and noticed the same smile too on the faces of the audience opposite to me.

The lady in front of me instinctively shouted out: ‘You get them, girl’ as she prepared to take her revenge on the money-grubbing Athenians by funding the insurrection of Alcibiades’ band. It was that good.

A special mention, too, should be made of Patrick Drury, in the part of Flavius, the steward and major-domo of Lady Timon’s household, whose stillness and clarity of diction was even more effective in the final scene with her when he declares his desire to serve her for eternity.

Finally Lady Timon, stripped of all human dignity and aware not just of the failings and betrayal of others, but of her own too, carries the carving of the words of her own epitaph on her back, like Christ carrying the cross on Calvary, to the place of her own suicide.

Hearing of this, Alcibiades, with her insurrectionist forces in full command of Athens, spares the lives of the now bereft and humiliated bankers, and Flavius returns carrying the shrunken body of his mistress to form a tableau heartbreakingly reminiscent of the paintings of Christ taken down from the cross.

The entire production was a joy to behold. A privilege to witness acting of the highest degree from Kathryn Hunter. Just brilliant.