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: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

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

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Unholy Ghosts

SBW Stables Theatre, August 29

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Campion Decent’s touching autobiographical play Unholy Ghosts “tells the story of my family and our navigation of loss” as he writes in his program notes.

Effectively putting his own parents on stage, it’s no wonder he creates such vivid characters in this heartfelt yet funny three-hander in which a man known only as Son (James Lugton) tells us about the loss of his warring mother and father to cancer within seven months of each other.

Hovering beneath this is the shadow of his sister, who died 12 years ago, whose loss he still keenly feels.

Decent has the Son act as both narrator and player as he guides us from scene to scene and the emotional roller-coaster that he finds himself on.

The product of a dysfunctional family, the Son is a playwright in his 40s who lives with his male partner and their two children.

His mother (Anna Volska) is a former star of stage and radio who gave up her career for her children and has resented it ever since but whose life is still one big, grand performance. Drily witty, she smokes and drinks ferociously despite cancer riddling her body and applies lipstick liberally – even for her last rites, which is both funny and sad.

His father (Robert Alexander) is a cantankerous old grouch who has little sympathy with his son’s sexuality (describing homosexuals as “your lot”) or career choice.

There’s no love lost between the divorced pair and their Son finds himself caught in the middle as he visits them both during their illness, keen to ask questions about his parents’ damaging treatment of him as a child.

Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a parent or someone close will find aspects of the play to relate to. The mother’s description of her frail flesh literally coming apart at the seams hit home hard for me.

All three performers are excellent. Volska, who hasn’t been on stage for around a decade, brings precision timing and a compelling mix of diva-like manipulation and charm to the role of the mother. It’s wonderful to see her back in the theatre.

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Alexander is very touching as the father who wants to express regret in his dying days but must struggle to find a way, while Lugton gives a winning, truthful performance as a man torn between love and frustration, irritation and hurt, relief and fear of coming adrift.

Produced by White Box Theatre as part of Griffin Independent, Kim Hardwick directs the production with a light, understated touch and a lack of sentimentality, even as recrimination slides into redemption.

Coming toward the end, a fantasy scene set in heaven therefore feels out of place. The final scene in which the Son realises with euphoria that the family he now has is the one he has chosen – partner, children and friends – also sits slightly oddly after what has gone before but sends the audience out on a warm, fuzzy note.

On opening night I felt that the play didn’t build quite as strongly emotionally as it doubtless will (navigating the jumps between narration and scenes perhaps?) – but others apparently sobbed.

Unholy Ghosts is a lovely, heartfelt play. Decent’s script has a zing about it with big laughs as well as tears. One sentence rang out, and has echoed in my mind ever since: “We all know our parents teach us how to live, or not to live, but, of course, I realise now they also teach us how to die.”

Unholy Ghosts is at the SBW Stables Theatre until September 20. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

All’s Well That Ends Well

Seymour Centre, April 3

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo:  Seiya Taguchi

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.

The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.

In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.

Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.

Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.

Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.

Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.

Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.

Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.

There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.

As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.

Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.

The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.

Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.

But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.

Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.

All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940