★★★★☆The Bard’s last play is John Bell’s last show for the company – but he leaves us wanting more.

The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House
August 21, 2015

Perhaps it might seem a bit obvious that Shakespeare’s last play (his last known solo effort at least), should be the most apt vehicle for John Bell’s final engagement as Artistic Director of his company. Don’t be fooled though: this accomplished swansong production, superbly performed by its excellent cast, is a potent reminder of how gifted and ground-breaking an exponent of the Bard’s work Bell is.

Shakespeare’s masterpiece about forgiveness and justice, set against the wondrous backdrop of a magical island is among the most well-worn works in theatre, with the countless interpretations of the central protagonist, Propsero, leaving few dramatic stones unturned. However, under Bell’s direction, Brian Lipson’s debut performance for Bell Shakespeare in the role brings something new to the party, by allowing us to see the fragility and emotional vulnerability of this character. Often the usurped Milanese exile is painted as a powerful, tactical but benevolent figure, just in his wrath and magnanimous in his forgiveness, even if this supreme act of mercy falls on deaf ears. Enacting a carefully devised plan, the archetypal Prospero is the confident architect of not only his own fate but of all those who surround him. Yet here Lipson throws in a simmering undercurrent of uncertainty that bubbles over with anxiety at times, leaving us wondering if even Prospero is convinced that his plot will work. Rather than tyrannical or sternly authoritative we see him now as a man driven to desperation through love. He is not merely a magician using his daughter as an instrument for reconciliation, but a parent who knows that he must give up everything to ensure her future happiness, even if that means breaking his own heart in the process.

Bell’s innovations, some subtle, others revelatory, don’t stop with Prospero. In allowing the central anchor of the play to shake off some of the weighty gravitas we usually associate with him, Bell has opened up a vacuum into which a far brighter emotional spectrum has rushed. Softened are the lengthy and sometimes unbalanced expositions, and much of this production is infused with a welcome amount of humour as well as an impressively nuanced range of physicality, thanks to movement director Scott Witt.

Matthew Backer’s Ariel is cold, seemingly incapable of understanding the emotions of the humans he is corralling around the island. He sometimes mimics their movements, but with the ethereal incomprehension of a being for whom these mortal trivialities seem pointless. His ambivalence yields up some breezier moments, but largely he is an unwilling participant, resentful of his enslavement and disinterested in the fates of these characters. His light, nimble, birdlike movements add an extra aspect of spectral inhumanity to his performance, and make Ariel’s songs, which can be a moment of jarring artifice when mishandled, a more authentic gesture.

By contrast Damien Strouthos’ Caliban, with his hunched, brawny, ape-like gate is a knot of ferocious energy, but this is also pricked with comedy, especially in his stomach-turning worship of Hazem Shammas’ Stephano. In his parting scene with Prospero, finally understanding the significance of his forgiveness, he forces himself out of his squat posture to stand upright for a few seconds, in a touching moment of catharsis and mutual respect.

Eloise Winestock’s Miranda is also brightly comedic in her skittish, gleeful and delightfully naive wonder, matched by Felix Gentle’s similarly saccharine Ferdinand. Here Bell has also used some physical subtleties to show Miranda’s slow psychological departure from her life on the island, to her future as a princess, evolving from an impish, earth-bound scuttle to a more feminine and regally refined posture by the time she is finally presented to Ferdinand’s father, King Alonso (Maeliosa Stafford) and his advisor Gonzalo (Robert Alexander).

Another master stroke of Bell’s is to have this play’s most sinister and most comedic roles played by the same actors. As Prospero’s traitorous brother Antonio, Hazem Shammas is a ruthless, sleazy opportunist, flanked by Arky Michael’s thuggish Sebastian. However the menace of these two roles is fascinatingly upturned when Shammas and Michael return onstage as the drunken and buffoonish Stephano and Trinculo. A hilarious combination of pantomime silliness, with aspects of comedia dell’arte and just the right amount of camp, in this realigned, more optimistic rendering of The Tempest the strangeness of this comedy sub-plot doesn’t feel abrasive to the intention of the play. It’s also a great credit to the calibre of both these actors, who masterfully spring from one emotional extremity to the other with apparent effortlessness.

The Playhouse of the Sydney Opera House is a diminutive, intimate venue, which has its pros and cons. There is an immediacy and a bracing thrill being so close to the action, but despite the best efforts of Alan Johns’s baroque inspired score, designer Julie Lynch’s unfussy curtained set and Damien Cooper’s resourceful lighting, evoking the geographical and meteorological scale of Prospero’s magical island isn’t always successful, and occasionally this stage feels frustratingly cramped.

For me however, Bell’s real epiphany here is to allow only Lipson’s Prospero to haul up any significant pathos from the depths of this text, not in the guise of an all-powerful sorcerer, but in a touchingly human way. When Prospero finally releases Ariel, marking the end of his titular reign on the island and perhaps most poignantly the end of his life protecting and providing for his daughter, he finally breaks, sobbing inconsolably. After all the laughs and magic, this final image of bitter sadness casts a powerful spell. 

Bell Shakespeare present The Tempestuntil September 18.