‘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.

Unfinished business

Belvoir, February 18

KILL the Messenger is as simple as theatre gets. There’s a bare space – designer Ralph Myers in particularly pared-back mode – and some projected photographs, five actors, a couple of props, 75 minutes and we’re done.

The rigour, almost at the level of ruthlessness, is thrilling. Playwright Nakkiah Lui requires your attention and she gets it not with tricks and trimmings but with theatre’s most basic tools: a story and actors to tell it in a way that excites the emotions and demands immersion in its ideas. There’s a touch of the slide-show theatre so eloquently developed by William Yang and elements of documentary theatre intertwined with fictionalised narrative, all handled with a tremendously sure touch.

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lui’s searing first play, This Heaven, was seen at Belvoir two years ago in the small Downstairs theatre and it was clear there was an important new theatrical voice in town. Kill the Messenger is in the bigger Upstairs space and it deserves the room.

An aside: Ralph Myers’s artistic directorship has been notable for the openings he has given to Indigenous theatre artists and to women. Obviously Lui ticks both those boxes at the same time, which is pleasing. Naturally the nay-sayers will want to call this political correctness. It’s not – it’s correcting the bias of god knows how many decades and it is good. And good not just because it’s righting a wrong, but because it’s producing great work. But back to the work at hand …

Kill the Messenger slips easily back and forth in time and between real life and imagined encounters as Lui examines how easily people – her people, Aboriginal people – can essentially be invisible in a white world. The politics are strong and well argued but there’s a deep pool of personal grief too. Lui’s grandmother, Joan, died after an ages-old bureaucratic arrangement meant no one took any responsibility for her rotting home. No care, either.

There is a heart-rending photograph of Joan after she fell through the floor of her termite-infested home. We’ve already seen her looking suitably grandmotherly, with soft white hair and dark specs. Now the skin around her eyes is angrily puffed and red. The glasses are gone, obviously, because who needs them in a hospital bed, and anyway, they would be too painful to wear. Lui rightly lets the image pretty much speak for itself.

It’s par for the course for young Indigenous playwrights to be called “angry” and ”raw”. They are clichés really, just like older Aboriginal men and women are always, but always, described as “dignified” in a way older white people rarely are. These things are intended as compliments, of course, but I’m not sure that the thinking behind them is particularly deep. Lui touches on this early in Kill the Messenger when she says: “You want this to feel raw and honest, like a real snippet of an experience; an Aboriginal experience … Here is my tale of black oppression”.

She is being truthful but ironic too. The audience, which generally speaking is overwhelmingly white, wants a story. Lui wants to engage in something truthful, which is why she says her play doesn’t have an ending. Which it obviously does have, at the 75-minute mark when we leave the theatre, and doesn’t have in the sense that the issues are in any way resolved. It’s an unfinished play because it’s unfinished business. There are lots of layers – Lui doesn’t have a law degree for nothing.

Kill the Messenger was created from the knowledge that Indigenous Australians suffer injustices and slights that others do not and they can have dire consequences, so in that sense there is anger. But there is also great sadness and frustration, and in this play a challenge to audience members to examine their own actions and perceptions. Kill the Messenger is far from a one-note outburst.

The play’s second strand involves a young man, Paul (Lasarus Ratuere), whose drug addiction made him unwelcome when he sought medical care. Because she never met him Lui dramatises his plight and creates an incredibly sympathetic portrait of a charming, vivid, damaged soul. His sister Harley (Katie Beckett) comes alive explosively as she struggles with her wayward sibling’s failings and also tries to get answers from Alex (Matthew Backer), an emergency department nurse whose situation is not as black and white as it may seem.

Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend Peter completes the fine cast – almost.

Lui’s boldest stroke is to put herself in the play, right at its centre. Sometimes she’s acting herself (she’s very good), often she talks directly to the audience and near the end she touchingly places herself in conversation with Paul, who we know from the play’s first moments is going to kill himself. Lui has great stage presence – she’s warm, direct, unaffected and game. As she comments after getting close and personal with O’Sullivan, she thought when she wrote Kill the Messenger that elfin Miranda Tapsell would be playing her. Very cute.

Lui is sharp, funny, passionate and compassionate. She knows how to shape a debate, when to get mad and when to stay calm, and not necessarily in the places you might expect. Kill the Messenger simultaneously draws you in and keeps you on your toes, which makes for stimulating and entertaining theatre. The writing and construction show no signs of strain, for which praise must go also to director Anthea Williams and dramaturg Jada Alberts.

And I love that Lui will get out there every night to tell and retell what happened to Joan and Paul. It’s as if she doesn’t quite trust us; that we might otherwise be able to tuck this away as fiction if she’s not there to bear witness.

Joan. Her name was Joan.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 20.

Ends March 8.