It seems fitting that John Bell’s last directional effort with Bell Shakespeare, a company he founded almost 25 years ago and has since been actively involved in, is Shakespeare’s last major play, The Tempest. Fuelled by its hybrid genre as a tragic comedy, Bell returns to the play’s light-hearted roots – bringing direction, which gives the play a magical lightness. However, Bell does not forget the gravitas that surround The Tempest, exhibiting a delicate balance between the two genres that ground Shakespeare’s work as one of his most unique.
Immediately upon setting your feet into the theatre, it is clear that Bell wants his audiences to immerse themselves into the imaginative world of The Tempest. Nate Edmonson’s sound design grabs you on with its crashing waves, chirping birds and atmospheric sensations, very much supported by Alan John’s spectacular musical score. Not only do both become a drive for exposition and, at times, an allusion to the self-reflexivity of the play, but it also adds another layer of fascinating storytelling to its mix. The beautiful lighting design (Damien Cooper) and set design (Julie Lynch) displays this; its smart use of shadows and backlighting against the multifunctional, yet simple fabric set, works as a mode of narration – transitioning scenes smoothly, and showcasing the dimensions of Prospero’s darkness and magic.
While the technical aspects are perhaps the most admirable, the cast are nevertheless sublime in their roles, adhering to Bell’s clear direction established by their technical counterparts. Brian Lipson’s Prospero is less the angry tyrant, evoking a more wistful and composed interpretation, similarly demonstrated through Miranda’s innocence (Eloise Winestock), whose tenderness and wide-eyed naivety becomes both affectionate and comic. Particularly, Bell has lots of fun with Shakespeare’s characters of Stephano and Trinculo, whose absurd roles as jesters become accentuated and drawn-out, gathering many laughs from the audience. While Bell’s direction evidently delves less into The Tempest’s dark psychological territories, Matthew Backer shines in his role as Ariel – whose anguished desire for liberty becomes a compelling reflection of the play’s thematic material. Backer’s pure singing voice accompanies the tinkling of the music score, and his physical movements are both fluid and impeccable, enhancing his magical portrayal as Ariel as a sympathetic and poignant character.
The Tempest is a magical delight at the theatre – it is both fresh and captivating. John Bell’s impact through the Bell Shakespeare Company has been nothing short of incredible, and his last production of The Tempest is no exception.