Can you tell us about the island world you’ve created for this production of The Tempest?

It’s a very simple design. John [Bell] and I began working on the set design in June 2014 and we’ve had about a dozen meetings since, where we’ve looked at a whole range of different ideas, from sets that looked like they were located in the theatre, to those that were set on the beach. But every time we looked at something that felt too specific we felt that it became reductive, in terms of where the performers could take the piece and also where the audience’s imagination can take the piece.

So we’ve ended up with a simple way of staging; and one that very much relies on classic stagecraft.

The set is largely a platform and a couple of curtains, all very neutrally embellished. This comes out of the storytelling. It’s very much an open space, and one that’s light because there’s a great deal of comedy that runs through The Tempest. Plus it’s got romance running through it, too. We had such a lightness of response to the play that we didn’t think it should feel dark or bleak. There’s such a lot of hope in it.

Also, music is a huge part of the piece; and the sounds of the island. Again, if you can create something neutral then those sounds can take you to a completely different place in your imagination.

The people in the piece are very simply clothed. [For instance] the lords, who have come from a wedding, are wearing clothes that you could easily wear to a [royal] wedding today… Military coats and other kinds of things that you might see, for example, at Will and Kate’s wedding… There’s nothing that really says this is 2015, but there’s also nothing that’s saying it’s, say, 1945 either. They’re sitting in a timeless place.

And we’ve heard a whisper that the island in this production is actually a world made out of torn paper…

That came about because we were trying to create ambiguity. It’s actually a cloth that’s kind of brushed-looking and then it’s had ink washed onto it. From this, the audience will hopefully see a storm, [then later] you will see an island, you will see rocks, you will see the landscape. We have created something that is ambiguous, and therefore you can see what you need to see as the story unfolds.

William Shakespeare has set a challenge for you at the outset by asking you to conjure up a storm on stage. How are you going to do this?

We are manipulating the cloth in different ways and the actors are actually responding to the cloth. Movement Director, Scott Witt, was saying the other day how much he loves working with a live prop. Night after night, it won’t be exactly the same. It will be similar, up to a point; but because the actors will be involved in the manipulation of this cloth it will be slightly different every time.

Audiences are used to seeing cloth used as the water in The Tempest, but we’re not doing it like that. We’re using it to portray the idea of a storm, not just a sea.

Likewise, there are elements of magic in Shakespeare’s script. How will the magic be created on stage?

We are very much relying on the performers and on simple objects and on stagecraft to create the magic… It is all about design supporting the performance; not design taking over the performance. Shakespeare describes things so beautifully, as to what needs to happen [in the play], that I think the beauty is actually in creating or solving Shakespeare’s challenges through the performer.

In The Tempest, Shakespeare conjures up a ‘brave new world’ on a desert island. Can you relate to that idea of conjuring up a world?

I like to think of it as this: we’re this unique group [the directors, the designers and the actors] that gets cast by the director of the company to create a work and we will all influence and help each other along the way, responding to the narrative and to the discoveries of the rehearsal room. It’s an adventure that you go on every time.

And what you think it might look like on the first day of rehearsal is only a guide. It is likely to blossom into something hopefully far more resonant, far more detailed and deeper than what you first thought because you’re discovering things as you work together.

The Bell Shakespeare production of The Tempest will be performed at Sydney Opera House (19 August – 18 September). Details at  

Interview written by Felicity McLean, freelance journalist and author @FelicityMcLean


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