Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21
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’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