The Tempest, by William Shakespeare | Directed by John Bell

Bell Shakespeare (www.bellshakespeare.com.au) | Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Sydney | Until 18 September

As the audience enters the theatre, Prospero (Brian Lipson) sits serenely, cross-legged and to all intents and purposes meditating. He is on an island, but his serene pose is deceptive. He is in fact conjuring a storm which carries characters from his past. The opening storm scene, so difficult to stage, is perfectly executed and evoked here by the combination of Julie Lynch’s softly sensual and flowing set design, Damien Cooper’s lighting, Nate Edmondson’s sound skills and Scott Witt’s movement direction.

As the storm subsides, Prospero explains to Miranda (Eloise Winestock) how they came to be shipwrecked on the island 12 years before. Then, he had been Duke of Milan. His brother, now King Alonso (Maeliosa Stafford), had usurped him, but with Gonzalo’s help he had escaped in a small boat with his baby daughter, Miranda, and his books about magic. They found refuge on the island, Prospero was banished from Naples and now his old enemies are also shipwrecked.

It is a complex story, but we are in the hands of an expert, and John Bell’s practiced direction clearly navigates. Ferdinand (Felix Gentle), Alonso’s son, arrives in their midst and, charmed by Miranda and maybe by Ariel (Matthew Backer), Prospero’s magical agent, the couple fall under love’s spell.

Prospero quickly puts Ferdinand to work hauling wood and in this charming scene Ariel displays to the audience his playful nature and considerable magical powers. Ariel is always a difficult role but Backer is impressively confident and convincing.

In Bell’s perceptive production it is the supernatural inspiring rather than the usual weightier dramatic struggle for revenge. Prospero is still central to the narrative, generating the plot almost single-handedly with his schemes, spells, and manipulations, and Lipson gives a most measured performance, playing Prospero as a mild and equable loving father who is eager to provide for his daughter, Miranda, while constructing a grand design to achieve a happy ending.

A sub-plot ensues in a bawdy vaudevillian manner and to all intents and purposes steals the show. Stephano (Hazem Shammas) and Trinculo (Arky Michael) are separated from the royal party and have met Caliban (Damien Strouthos), the lone and grotesque slave of Prospero, who suggests a plan to usurp Prospero. Shammas and Michael carry the comic underplot with physical aplomb, improvised slapstick, knockabout and superb comic timing and conjure a light-hearted atmosphere that is both refreshing and very, very entertaining.

This Tempest could for some appear tepid. It does not dive to the depths of many other productions. Instead, emphasis is on spectacle, movement and fun, and in doing so Bell, in his last role for the company he founded, enables the audience to explore firsthand the ambiguities and ultimate creative spirit of a director in this beautiful and magical construction. Thumbs Up!