‘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.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Seminar

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Belvoir Downstairs, August 27. Seminar, Ensemble Theatre, August 27 matinee.

THE Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has just got underway in front of a packed, albeit small, house. “If we keep this up they might move us upstairs,” quips one of the performers. Right on ladies!

The performers have good reason to think they could pull a bigger crowd than at Belvoir Downstairs, where capacity is just 83. Tickets sold out in a trice (people can waitlist on the day) and there’s a lot more room in the Upstairs theatre. Room for about 330, to be precise.

Baulkham Hills is simplicity itself – a bunch of stories, some songs, a little bit of dancing and a couple of comic segments – and has a setting to match.There’s plenty of high-level expertise in the design, lighting, video, music-making and so on, but the production gently and gracefully concentrates on its protagonists, four women who used to live in Africa and now live in Australia.

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a gripping theatre piece, particularly as the women didn’t just provide the raw material but appear on stage as well. But gripping it is, and sobering, and humbling.

In Sierra Leone, Yarrie Bangura saw cruelty of almost unimaginable proportions. Aminata Conteh-Biger doesn’t like to be told she’s beautiful, which she is, because being attractive to men brought her hideous torment. We hear something of Yordanos Haile-Michael’s terrible youth, but she is a reticent, slightly tense figure who is undoubtedly keeping much back. Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe, vibrant and positive, was beaten again and again. Rape, slavery, violence and deprivation – these were everyday reality for these stupendously brave women.

Out of this difficult, sometimes harrowing material, Writer-director Ros Horin has created an optimistic, uplifting show. Key to its success is the vivid presence of the women. Each tells aspects of her story, but there are times when the narration is handed to one of the three professional actors – Nancy Denis, Tariro Mavondo and Effie Nkrumah – who help shape the performance. It’s a touching device, and a clever one. It softens the blows, a little.

The show sags somewhat late into the 105-minute span. The hair-dressing scene, although bringing some comic relief, feels like filler. The earlier exposition on the difference between African dance styles and a quiz about the continent are much stronger and could take expansion. All of it, though, without being in any way overtly political, puts faces and personalities to the statistics and humanises the refugee debate. A splendid achievement.

And you have to love a show in which a woman – the irrepressible Yarrie Bangura – comes up with this line:  “Oh my goodness, [I think] I’m in heaven. And that was Sydney Airport.”

SYDNEY’S second-most attractively sited theatrical venue, after the Opera House of course, is the Ensemble in Kirribilli and it’s always a great pleasure to go to this small theatre on the water’s edge. How it manages without government funding is a miracle and a tribute to its ability to read its loyal audience.

Next year it will present Clybourne Park, which has been seen in Melbourne but not staged in Sydney; ditto Other Desert Cities, which is Queensland Theatre Company’s current production (it ends at the weekend). David Auburn’s Proof, another drama with a Broadway provenance is on next year too.

Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, is the latest in the “as seen on Broadway” shows at the Ensemble and is given a lively, entertaining production, although one that can’t disguise the play’s too-numerous flaws. The set-up has, well, the air of a set-up. A group of ambitious young writers gathers at an apartment to drink in the (expensive) wisdom of Leonard, apparently an editor of note, a writer of despatches from the world’s hot-spots and once a novelist. I think I have that right – why Leonard keeps dashing off to Somalia or Sudan or wherever is a bit unclear.

Anyhoo, Leonard is a tough old tyrant who needs to read only half a sentence before he knows exactly how bad a piece of writing is. Or he can speed-read a couple of pages and discern genius. He’s vile to the students, who also have other interpersonal issues to get through. All of this is quite amusing, if unconvincing.

Arguments and situations are false and clunky, although Rebeck’s writing itself can be well-wrought and funny and the young characters have vim. It’s an easy 100 minutes. But as a serious discussion about the art of writing, the need to write, who is the arbiter of what is good and what is not and other assorted cultural dilemmas, Seminar unfortunately gets a fail.

On the plus side, director Anna Crawford has assembled an excellent cast, including William Zappa in robust form as Leonard. I very much enjoyed Matilda Ridgway’s wound-up Kate and Michelle Lim Davidson’s blithely calculating and sexy Izzy. Felix Gentle (Douglas) and Matthew  Zeremes (Martin) also give expertly pitched performances. A pity it’s not a better play.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a co-production with Racing Pulse Productions & Riverside in association with STARTTS ends September 17; Seminar ends September 14.