The Tempest review (Sydney Opera House)

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After 25 years at the helm of Australia’s premier Shakespeare company (the one named after him), John Bell is finally making his exit. But Australia’s master of the Bard has one final scene to play: this playful and gorgeously assured production of one of Shakespeare’s most elusive works, The Tempest.
As a piece of theatre, The Tempest (fittingly also Shakespeare’s last full-length play) is full of intrigue and excitement, but can be a bit of a mish-mash: part revenge play, part romance, part family drama, part fantasy and part broad comedy.
It starts with a vicious storm conjured up by the former Duke of Milan and sorcerer Prospero (Brian Lipson), who has been stranded on an island for 12 years after his brother Antonio (Hazem Shammas) usurped the Dukedom. Learning that Antonio and several of his co-conspirators are passing by his island on a ship, he (and several of the spirits from the island which he commands) uses the storm to bring Antonio to the island.
What happens after the opening sequence is rather lighter, and sees most of Shakespeare’s characters on a journey to reconciliation and forgiveness. It’s a rare director who can bring these disparate elements together into a satisfying whole, but Bell does so with a lightness of touch and a sense of fun.
Right from that evocative opening storm scene — smoke machines, strobe lighting and industrial-strength fans — it’s clear that this is a production which creates magic out of the most basic elements of theatre. There are no great expensive special effects, just the kind of theatrical ingenuity directors have used for centuries when mounting the play.
Julie Lynch’s design is one of the stars of this production: her set is made up of a single fractured platform surrounded by crumpled curtains, with just a glimmer of glitter shimmering through. The costumes are impressive too: from Prospero’s weather-worn get up to Ariel’s spectacular black, winged Harpy costume (and Miranda’s wedding gown is one of the most dazzling, beautiful garments I’ve ever seen onstage). And, like everything in this production, the design doesn’t feel like it’s trying to keep up with the latest fashions. It’s just a truthful rendering of the ideas and characters as written.
The broad comic relief seems a little jarring at first, but it’s soon clear that Bell and his cast have attacked these scenes with the scrappy, clownish spirit with which they were originally intended. This is no dry cerebral exercise.
Bell has assembled a superb cast led by Brian Lipson as Prospero. He delivers notably less fury than many actors in the role: his Prospero is jaded, but almost reconciliatory right from the start, and by the end quietly, happily resigned to his future.
Eloise Winestock is impressive as his daughter, Miranda, bringing a strange, un-studied physicality to the role. The character has not seen another human since she was a very young child, apart from her father, so the arrival of these strangers is a fascinating and new experience for her.
The father-daughter relationship between Prospero and Miranda feels palpably real, as does the love that blossoms between Miranda and the young prince Ferdinand, played with great sensitivity by Felix Gentle.
There are memorable comedic turns from Hazem Shammas as Stephano and Arky Michael as Trinculo, but it’s Matthew Backer who makes the biggest impression as the spirit Ariel. There’s a genuinely otherworldly quality to his performance and a bird-like physicality matched by his straight-forward performances of two songs. In the hands of a lesser actor it could all come across as naff, but Backer’s commitment turns it into something special.
The final scenes between Prospero and Miranda, and Prospero and Ariel, play out with a beautiful simplicity — there’s a sadness pervading, but it’s tastefully underplayed. Bell doesn’t need to pull out all the tricks to impress; his confident hand shines through as he leaves his company on a high note.
[box]The Tempest is at The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until September 18. Featured image by Prudence Upton[/box]

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