Such stuff as dreams are made on: Bell Shakespeare’s The Tempest

Written in 1612, The Tempest was Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, and has been read (perhaps inaccurately) as a valediction to the theatre. This TempestJohn Bell’s twenty-fifth anniversary production for Bell Shakespeare, and his last as artistic director – could also be read as a valediction to the theatre as much as to the company that bears his name, but that would be to do this production a disservice. Here, on Bell’s island – on the set, as much as in an imaginary space – I am certain magic was worked, and this is a colourful, poignant, and fitting way to sign off from his company.

Set ostensibly in the theatre, the set – designed by Julie Lynch with the same poetry and vibrancy as in Bell Shakespeare’s Pericles six years ago – is a world of torn paper. Curtains hang around the raked circular tabula rasa, billowing – thrillingly – in the opening tempestuous moments, and create a world which is everywhere and nowhere; familiar and strange, all at once. As Hermann Melville wrote in Moby Dick, “it is not down in any map; true places never are.” Lynch’s costumes are a wonderful amalgam of styles and periods, never explicitly sticking to one in particular, and adds colour and life to the ‘blank’ set. Damien Cooper’s lighting is rich and colourful, powerfully complementing Lynch’s work, as well as creating many subtle moments of poetry. Alan John’s score – adapted from his 1990 production for Company B Belvoir – is rich with texture and melody, and oscillates from haunting elegies to gorgeous baroque tapestries of sound.
The Tempest is the story of Prospero, a magician, who has been exiled from Milan with his daughter Miranda, and cast upon an island. With the help of his familiar spirit Ariel, Prospero creates a tempest, wrecking the ship with his brother and the court of Milan on the shores of his island, hoping to exact revenge upon them, for usurping his dukedom. But in true Shakespearean fashion, what begins as a revenge story, quickly morphs into something rich and strange, a story about hope, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion. Often grouped alongside Pericles, Cymbeline, and The Winter’s Tale as part of the Romances, The Tempest shares many similarities with these other plays: fathers and daughters, an almost fairytale mode of storytelling and, as Coleridge wrote, an “abundance of incident, with little or no concern for verisimilitude.” In the Romances, wonders can – and frequently do – happen, and The Tempest is no exception.
Bell’s cast are almost perfectly suited to their roles here, and play them with aplomb, dignity, and most importantly, grace. Brian Lipson’s Prospero is a benevolent soul, equal parts concerned father, wronged duke, and child delighting in his box of magic tricks; his epilogue is understatedly powerful, and there is a sense of resignation and weariness in the closing moments. Eloise Winestock’s Miranda is effervescent, a bolt of compassion, concern, and wide-eyed wonder in the brave new world she finds herself in, and her scenes with Felix Gentle’s equally wide-eyed Ferdinand are touching and beautiful. Ariel is hauntingly brought to life by Matthew Backer, in a performance full of curiosity that seems part bird, part cat, and part air; his songs are rich and resonant, and his harpy is marvellous and a little bit terrifying. Damien Strouthos’ Caliban is not the monster we are accustomed to, and brings humanity and compassion to this man who has been enslaved; his corralling of the drunken fools is wonderful, and the moment in which he gains his freedom from service is beautifully measured. Hazem Shammas’ Stephano and Arky Michael’s Trinculo as the original strange bedfellows are well-matched and their antics are genuinely entertaining and well-timed; their alternate turns as the scheming Antonio and Sebastian (respectively) are often effected at the drop of a hat (almost literally), and the differentiation between these two roles are handled wonderfully calibrated. The ensemble is rounded out with Maeliosa Stafford’s regal Alonso, and Robert Alexander’s babbling bumbling Gonzalo.
The magic in this Tempest comes from the lightness of touch with which Bell directs, the palpable care, warmth, and aliveness with which it unfolds upon the stage in almost real-time. In a case of less is more, Bell and Lynch create wonder from a few pieces of cloth, a billowing paper sail and a fan, and a few carefully-chosen props. The stage never feels cluttered nor empty, but instead feels full of life; there’s a tangible sense of care and affection on stage too, between Lipson’s Prospero and Winestock’s Miranda, between Miranda and Gentle’s Ferdinand, between Prospero and Backer’s Ariel… an affinity from Bell for the text, for the opportunity to play on the stage, and for twenty-five rewarding years with this company, a career walking side by side with the good Bard’s words. Bell’s revels may not be quite ended, but this Tempest is certainly such stuff that dreams are made on.

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