The Tribe

A backyard near Belvoir St Theatre, January 20


Hazem Shammas in The Tribe. Photo: Catherine Cranston

In the theatre program for The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad writes: “This is my attempt to counteract the limited and simplistic representation that the Arab-Australian Muslim communities of Western Sydney have received to date, and to offer a broader, more intimate understanding. It is also an act of self-determination – a declaration of the right to reclaim and tell our own stories in our own way.”

Performed by Hazem Shammas and accompanied by Oonagh Sherrard on cello and a few percussion instruments, The Tribe is a beguiling piece of storytelling, staged in a Surry Hills backyard where the audience sits on an assortment of picnic rugs, milk crates and chairs.

The performance I saw was staged at a home just across the road from the theatre. There are three different venues, with the furthest one a 10-minute walk away.

Adapted from Ahmad’s novel of the same name by Ahmad and Janice Muller, and directed by Muller, The Tribe is told by Bani, a young boy living in Sydney with his extended Shiite Muslim family who fled Lebanon. He takes us into his family home and school, conjuring vivid little pictures of his relations and friends, particularly his beloved grandmother to whom he is extremely close.

The production, from Urban Theatre Projects, premiered at last year’s Sydney Festival and is now presented by Belvoir.

Shammas is a mesmerising storyteller, sliding effortlessly between different characters and voices. Sherrard’s music, with Arabic influences, underscores the performance beautifully, while delightful little interactions between her and Shammas’s storytelling add to the understated humour.

The Tribe feels like an intimate yarn, offering an authentic glimpse into a family and a culture: a genuine slice of life delivered with real love.

The Tribe plays until February 7. Bookings: or 02 9699 3444

The Tempest

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

The symbolism may have been unconscious as John Bell insists, but he couldn’t have chosen a more apt play than The Tempest as his final production for Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago.

Thought to be Shakespeare’s last full-length play, Prospero’s final renunciation of his “rough magic” has been seen as the Bard’s farewell to the stage. This enchanting production is a perfect farewell for Bell too.

Bell doesn’t overlay any political interpretation but directs the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and a deft lightness, helming a production in which all the elements cohere in delightful fashion.

The opening storm conjured by Prospero to bring his former foes to the magical isle, where he has been living for the past 12 years with his daughter Miranda, is dramatically staged with wind machines, billowing drapes, operatic music and strobe lighting as the actors cling to a thick rope to represent the lurching ship.

As the winds abate, Julie Lynch’s minimal set (a disc-like platform backed by silvery-grey drapes) together with her costumes create the perfect setting for Bell’s lyrical vision, enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting, Alan John’s music and Nate Edmondson’s sound.

Brian Lipson’s Prospero is discovered sitting cross-legged on the stage meditating as we enter the theatre. His portrayal is less an avenging, autocratic sorcerer and more a world-weary, slightly absent-minded, emotional man with a wry manner, a fierce love for his daughter and a great deal of humanity.

Eloise Winestock plays Miranda with a touch of untamed animal about her, as well as wide-eyed delight when she sees other people for the first time, while Felix Gentle is a sweet-natured Ferdinand.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer’s spellbinding portrayal of Ariel makes the spirit’s desperate longing for freedom palpable. His tippy-toe physicality gives him an otherworldly quality and the way his movement echoes the mortals when he leads them with his magic is a lovely touch. In fact, movement director Scott Witt has done a superb job throughout. Backer’s clear-voiced singing also helps evoke the magic in the air.

Damien Strouthos’s Caliban is less brutish than often portrayed, making his famous speech about the noises of the isle all the more believable. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are genuinely funny as the comic servants Trinculo and Stephano, while also doubling effectively as Antonio and Sebastian. Robert Alexander as the kindly, dignified Gonzalo and Maeliosa Stafford as King Alonso complete the fine cast.

“Let you indulgence set me free,” says Prospero to the audience in the epilogue.

The words resonated beyond the play on opening night as the audience stood and turned to face John Bell sitting in the audience, offering him applause not just for the production but for his great achievements at Bell Shakespeare.

The Tempest plays at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until September 18. Bookings: or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 30