The Tempest

Playhouse, August 21

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Eloise Winestock as Miranda and Brian Lipson as Prospero. Photo: Prudence Upton.

John Bell leaves the company he founded on a high. Here was a Tempest in which he restored the play’s often-lost lightness, and rediscovered the comedy that exists outside of the marauding drunkenness of Stephano and Trinculo. Refreshingly for one of Shakespeare’s most imposed-upon works Bell has felt no need to “interpret”, but merely staged it so the sense of wonder has been a paramount concern across the creative team, including Julie Lynch’s designs, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Alan John’s music. Music is the blood of spirits, and John’s pretty songs and disembodied enchantments fully justify Caliban’s rapturous “when I wak’d/I cried to dream again” speech.

While Lynch’s billowing fabric to depict the opening storm established the production’s gloriously non-literal approach, the first two scenes still felt awkward compared with all that was to come. Nonetheless Bell strove to smooth the second scene’s endless exposition, bringing on in dumb-show the characters of which Prospero tells Miranda, and extracting what snippets of humour are to be had.

Thereafter the production grew wings.

Brian Lipson’s Prospero, initially discovered in yogic meditation, is less the ponderously stern despot, more the absent-minded shaman, and his delivery of the “We are such stuff as dreams are made on” speech was lighter than air. Eloise Winestock made Miranda not just sweetness and sheltered innocence, but a magical creature who, after all, has only ever hobnobbed with a wizard, spirits and a witch’s son.

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Damien Strouthos as Caliban. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Several characters had distinctive physicalities, notably Ariel and Caliban. Matthew Backer was a tip-toeing, flowing Ariel without being an effeminate one, and his attractive singing voice a major asset. Damien Strouthos was a stunning Caliban: somewhat primate-like – inclined to walk on all fours – and less oafish than most Calibans, so the “cried to dream again” speech was not only credible but moving.

Bell has always had a flair for directing comedy, and the scenes entangling Caliban, Stephano (Hazem Shammas) and Trinculo (Arky Michael) were both funnier and cleverer than is often the case. The latter two actors doubled Antonio and Sebastian, respectively, and Felix Gentle (Ferdinand), Maeliosa Stafford (Alonso), and Robert Alexander (Gonzalo) completed the splendid cast.

Prospero’s release of Ariel was especially poignant, and now Bell, too, has untied his spell on Bell Shakespeare.

Until September 18.