‘They shall be themselves’

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21.

THE Tempest starts in tumult and ends in calm. Prospero, ejected from his dukedom of Milan 12 years before, is going home. His daughter, Miranda, is to marry the heir to the throne of Naples, ending the enmity between two great houses. Ariel and Caliban, the light and dark creatures enslaved by Prospero on his strange island of exile are set free. Virtue has won over vengeance.

John Bell’s reading of Shakespeare’s late romance shimmers with light, fills the air with music and reaches into the heart with the most wonderful simplicity. Unburdened by contemporary social and political theory, it is concerned with self-discovery. Prospero has paid the price for putting his head in his books and letting his ambitious brother, Antonio, do all the heavy lifting in Milan. In the course of one afternoon – the timeframe is highly explicit – the key players in the story come together and harmony is restored.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

“My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore and they shall be themselves,” says Prospero near the end. They shall be themselves: it is the most profound of all outcomes.

The Tempest opens with a cracking storm and shipwreck as Prospero’s enemies, handily passing by, are tossed on to the island. Alan Johns’s operatic score, designer Julie Lynch’s wildly billowing curtains and Damien Cooper’s expressive lighting immediately conjure a world of theatrical magic in which anything might happen.

We see two young people fall in love at first sight, regicide attempted, buffoons ape their betters and insanely plot a coup, sorrows endured and wonders beheld. Lipson’s Prospero, orchestrating these events, is less a tyrant than mercurial, slightly distracted professor. For all his powers he is intensely human, admitting “some vanity of my art”, hugging Miranda (Eloise Winestock) fiercely and keeping Ariel (Matthew Backer) captive with something that feels very like an ageing man’s neediness. When Backer stands beside Lipson, looking very much a younger version of him, there is a sense of what Prospero wanted to be – a free spirit unburdened by the cares of office. But that is not possible in the real world.

Ariel is very much at the centre of things, watching gravely and intently as the tasks he has been assigned bring the pieces of the story together. Backer is transcendent, a seamless amalgam of intelligence, other-worldliness, understanding and yearning. And he is given some delicious pieces of business too, making spirit-world light of lifting a log the young Ferdinand finds so heavy and clutching his ears in pain as a badly sung song assaults his senses.

There’s much joy and laughter too in the Stephano-Trinculo subplot, in which Hazem Shammas and Arky Michael come up a treat in commedia dell’arte antics and fantastical clothing and are howlingly funny. In this fine cast Winestock is at present too skittish but has one of the evening’s most delicious moments, Felix Gentle is a sweet-mannered Ferdinand, Damien Strouthos powerfully conveys Caliban’s hurt and Robert Alexander has effortless nobility as Prospero’s old friend Gonzalo. Maeliosa Stafford’s bluff King Alonso and Shammas and Michael doubling as Antonio and Sebastian complete the company.

This Tempest would delight on any occasion but has particular poignancy as Bell farewells the company he founded 25 years ago. In the epilogue Prospero speaks directly to the audience and asks for its good will. He has wanted only to please and needs the audience’s approbation before he can leave his enchanted island. “Let your indulgence set me free,” he says as the lights go out.

On opening night the audience rightly stood as one and turned to Bell, giving him a sustained ovation. It should be noted, however, that next year he directs for Opera Australia and next month appears in Belvoir’s Ivanov. Bell’s revels are not ended, not by a long shot.

The Tempest plays in Sydney only and ends on September 18.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 24.

Zest and immediacy

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

As Bell nears the end of its long run of Henry V, here’s what I wrote after its premiere in Canberra…

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things are of course explicit in Shakespeare’s text and in others of his history plays. At the end of Henry IV Part II Lancaster predicts that “ere this year expire/ We bear our civil swords and native fire/ As far as France” and Henry V ends with the Chorus reminding us that in the near future Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed”. But the elan of Henry V’s rhetoric and his stunning success at Agincourt often lead the way in the theatre. The brilliant “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” oratory at the Siege of Harfleur and the magical St Crispin’s day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – are hard to resist.

Ryan does resist, adding prologue of excerpts from Richard II and Henry IV to beef up the point. No matter what the talk of peace there is always conflict, often on the most convoluted of pretexts. It was a joy to see the complicated Salic Law explained by Keith Agius’s Chorus, teacher clad in a knitted cardie and wielding a stick of chalk.

The Chorus has earlier famously called on the audience to use its “imaginary forces” to summon vast fields, large armies, prancing horses and bellicose monarchs. “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” he says. But Ryan – whose productions for his own company, Sport for Jove, are always marvelously lucid – clearly sees that getting through all that virtually impenetrable Salic Law business would be a mighty slog if we were left to our own devices. The blackboard diagrams are really rather useful.

Apart from Michael Sheasby as Henry, everyone in the terrific 10-strong cast plays multiple characters in the style of a boys’ and girls’ own adventure yarn. Anna Gardiner’s design gives them little more than shelves to become city walls, a tavern, a king’s receiving room and barricades on a battle field and it works wonderfully. Not to mention practical: there’s a huge national tour coming up. The air of improvisation gives the action zest and immediacy and there is none of that dread impression of a production created solely for the purpose of being able to be packed up quickly and thrown in the back of a truck.

Sheasby is a light-voiced Henry who at first sounds like an attractive but unseasoned actor thrown by chance into a part. By the time Henry is skulking around at night eavesdropping on the troops to see what they think of him, and then as he woos the French princess Katharine (played with much wit by Eloise Winestock), Sheasby has blossomed nicely. But his primary role is not Henry, by turns benevolent and blood-thirsty as the political needs dictate, it is a boy playing Henry. The sense of distance between performers and performed is always strong, particularly as from time to time they repeat key points or throw in a stage direction or two to reorient themselves in the text.

Despite the appearance of robust mucking up this is delicate work and it is beautifully choreographed, not just physically but also in the quicksilver changes of mood and beautifully judged musical accompaniment. Steve Francis composed the score and created the sound design; actor Drew Livingston, who was the amusingly dogged Fluellen among other roles, wrote vocal music of grace and beauty.

The inspiration for the setting comes from reports of plays and entertainments being put on in shelters during the Blitz, when war rained down relentlessly on the heads of non-combatants and was greeted with stoic resistance. Ryan uses the imagery potently and at one point deeply shockingly. There’s a lot more going on than plucky Brits outwitting Johnny Foreigner as Ryan seamlessly layers past and present.

This is not a production in which Shakespeare’s language reigns. Henry’s big speeches are dialed down and are just part of the messy flow of war. I think Ryan’s chief point is that the boys in the shelter aren’t yet old enough to be seduced by that “little touch of Harry in the night”, bestowed to bolster courage and commitment on the English soldiers. But the Blitz happened in the early 1940s. Perhaps the following year, or the one after, they’d be old enough to be sent to fight.

Ends in Canberra June 28, followed by an extensive national tour ending in Sydney November 15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.