Review: The Tempest (Bell Shakespeare)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Aug 19 – Sep 18, 2015
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: John Bell
Cast: Robert Alexander, Matthew Backer, Felix Gentle, Brian Lipson, Arky Michael, Hazem Shammas, Maeliosa Stafford, Damien Strouthos, Eloise Winestock
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Shakespeare’s fantastical masterpiece The Tempest, with all its mystique and magic, is almost an allegory for the transportative and imaginary qualities of the world of theatre. On Prospero’s island, anything can happen, and on the stage, it is precisely that boundless unpredictability that makes it a special, and for many, sacred space. Whether it is the stories of everyday that are being presented, or manifesting scenarios beyond the wildest of dreams, theatre has the ability to provide something extraordinary to all its participants.

Like Prospero abandoning the magical arts at the play’s end, John Bell directs his last production with this rendition of The Tempest. The cast he has amassed is an impressive one, and Bell’s extensive acting background is clear to see, in the fascinating and intricate characters being brought to life. Every player is detailed, energetic and palpably present, yet the resultant show is oddly placid. Themes of the text fail to resonate. Ideas such as the distinctions we draw between nations, between nature and civilisation, between freedom and confinement, struggle to find illumination, even though their presences in modern life remain relevant. Exoticism is explored well in the show, but its sense of adventurous fantasy is not always established with sufficient dynamism. Music by Alan John and sound design by Nate Edmondson are outstanding features; helping to drive the production through atmospheric transformations and exquisite moments of ethereality. Less successful are its visual elements that seem to lack whimsy and ambition. The story being told is celestial and outlandish, but what we see is staid and dated. Even exits and entrances are awkwardly managed to accommodate the inconvenient access to stage wings of the uninspired set.

Prospero is played by Brian Lipson, whose nuanced and vibrant performance provides sustenance for the entire plot, and whose sharp focus keeps us compelled. The production suffers from an overall lack of poignancy, but Lipson depicts emotions with gravitas and complexity that assist with some level of audience identification. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are a show-stealing couple whose mischievous antics are a persistent source of amusement. They create some of the most memorable sequences with brilliantly broad comedic interpretations of their dual roles (Michael plays Sebastian and Trinculo, and Shammas is Antonio and Stephano), captivating us with what looks to be an updated, and improved, Laurel and Hardy act.

The story is about kingdoms, sorcery, and heavenly creatures, but the show does not bear the majesty of the famed text. With its delicate and sincere approach, it is easy to be disappointed by the production’s simplicity, even though the thoroughness of its thespian executions are evident. William Shakespeare’s imagination is a genius that is unparalleled, and it seems that our meagre capacities in the dark auditorium requires greater facilitation, in order to achieve the same vision he had intended.