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This is a slightly edited version of an article written for the Australian Writers’ Guild’s Storyline magazine,
published in August 2015 in Volume 35.

For thousands of young people across Australia each year, Bell Shakespeare’s Actors At Work programme brings the plays of William Shakespeare alive in an accessible and vibrant way. A core part of Bell Shakespeare’s learning programme since the company’s first season in 1990, Actors At Work travels the country with little more than the Bard’s words and their imaginations, and provides many students with their first experience of Shakespeare and/or live theatre.

Like many of these students, John Bell’s first introduction to Shakespeare came when he was at school. “I had a fantastic English teacher at that time who taught Shakespeare, and took us off to see the Shakespeare movies, and any live theatre that came to town, so I’d already got hooked on language and Shakespeare, poetry, some novels of course… we did about six Shakespeare plays in my high school years – two a year in great detail, so we got through it very thoroughly – and then I got interested in performing.”

After school, Bell completed an arts degree at Sydney University with English Honours, and joined the Old Tote – Sydney’s first full-time professional theatre company – in 1963, before the British Council gave him a scholarship to study acting at the Bristol Old Vic in England in 1964. Whilst there, he auditioned for the Royal Shakespeare Company, joining them in 1965. Married with two children and, as he says, “sick of touring around, I had to decide whether to stay in England and become part of that big theatre machine, or come home and do something more significant.” In 1970, he was Head of Acting at NIDA, before he and Ken Horler established the Nimrod Theatre in an old stable in Kings Cross. Four years later, having outgrown their small theatre, they secured the old tomato sauce and salt factory on Belvoir Street in Surry Hills, turning it into a theatre, and continuing as Nimrod until 1984. After freelancing for several years, Bell founded the Bell Shakespeare Company in 1990, which he retires from in August of this year as the company concludes its twenty-fifth year.

While Bell gives me a brief outline of his fifty-year career, I wonder if his unflagging passion for Shakespeare was there from the beginning, or something that came later. “If it hadn’t been for Shakespeare I wouldn’t be an actor,” he says. “It was Shakespeare that really turned me on, that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to act Shakespeare… The words, the poetry, the stories; the sheer size of it, the excitement of it. [I] wasn’t interested in doing movies or television, I only wanted to do Shakespeare, that’s all I wanted to do.”

Bell cites his position at NIDA as the reason he became interested in new Australian writing. His first production at NIDA was at the Jane Street Theatre in Randwick as part of NIDA’s annual season of Australian plays. Unhappy with any of the scripts on offer, and in collaboration with fellow NIDA colleague Michael Boddy, writer Bob Ellis, and a cast which included Robyn Nevin, Gillian Jones, Rex Cramphorn and William Yang, Bell created The Legend of King O’Malley, which he also directed. By turns a burlesquing Faustian story, full of pantomime, vaudeville, Australian politics, and music-hall turns, the play was extremely popular, and transferred to the Parade theatre, before embarking on a national tour and, later, a commercial season.

Having enjoyed the process of “collaborating, improvising, and creating a play out of nothing,” the aim of creating Nimrod was to focus on creating new Australian theatre, from writers like David Williamson, Jack Hibberd, Alex Buzo, and John Romeril among others. “We didn’t know how long we’d last, or if it would flourish. Just to get it off the ground, and to launch it… was a huge thrill. [It] was rough, it was bawdy; the whole point of it was to be sort of anti-establishment, and get away from the comfortable bourgeois theatre scene which was predominating… it was very informal, the presentations and the kind of seating, that’s why it took off and was so popular.”

Yet, while most of the plays at Nimrod were new, their writers were largely unknown, so the company turned to Shakespeare approximately once a year “to pay the bills and get an audience; Shakespeare actually subsidised [new] Australian writing for a good ten years or more.” Has Bell has ever wanted to write for theatre, rather than just acting and directing? “I’ve had no real urge to write anything… I might surprise myself if I sat down and tried, but I’ve never had the inclination.” As a director, he loves working with writers on scripts to develop new writing, and it’s something he’s keen to do more of as he returns to freelancing.

Any conversation about Bell’s career will inevitably include the Bell Shakespeare Company, the classical company he founded in 1990, and Australia’s only national touring theatre company. Did he think it would survive twenty-five years? “I had an instinct that it would survive in some form otherwise I wouldn’t have thrown myself into it so heartily.” The first eight years were difficult – there was no government funding, not much more in the way of sponsorship, box office couldn’t cover everything by any means, so the company relied very much on donations. “But I never actually felt tempted to chuck it all in; whenever the thought crossed my mind, I thought, ‘No, I’ve got to carry on because so many people have invested in this.’

“It’s always been a happy company… in the office itself, and in the theatre, on the road; especially with those eight young actors playing all those schools each year, the Actors at Work programme, that’s a huge thing. [We’ve] never had any unpleasantness – twenty-five years of that, and no major blow-ups or fracturing of relationships, it’s remarkable. [It’s] a very good solid company in that way, and it’s always been a delight to be working here.

“The only frustration is we never have enough money; we often look very flush because we put on big shows at the Opera House, but it’s a day-to-day struggle. I’m not complaining – it’s the way theatre is, the way all the arts are[;] nearly every company would say the same thing… I think all the companies in this country do a very good job on so little, so we’re no different, no worse off, and not much better off than anyone else.”

Financial constraints aside, Bell Shakespeare has made an indelible mark on Australia’s theatrical landscape. In the early days of Bell Shakespeare, “[we] were criticised a lot for ‘not sounding classical enough’, not staging things in the classical way, why were we in shabby modern dress, or such a loose aesthetic and not a pretty look. But now [that’s] totally accepted, and [is] what everybody does these days. Back then, I think there was a bit of a breakthrough doing the classics, not just Shakespeare but any classics in that way for Australia.”

A significant milestone for Bell Shakespeare was the first production of a History play – Henry IV – which Bell directed in 1998. “Taking on a big English history play like that, and making it very contemporary, very Australian, was quite a significant [undertaking because] we hadn’t done the history plays in that way before. To take an English history play and see it through Australian eyes, an Australian comment on it, was a good perspective. People said they’d never seen anything so Australian, when in fact we were trying quite hard to be English, and do an English play. [It] was an Australian comment about class, about monarchy, mateship, gender politics… all those things came through in a very Australian way [even] though we weren’t trying to push it.”

Over a fifty-year career, it is hard to isolate particular highlights, but for Bell, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, creating Nimrod, and founding Bell Shakespeare are all significant milestones, as well as directing his first opera – Tosca, for Opera Australia – in 2013. As an actor, it’s his performances in the Old Tote’s production of The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui in 1970, Cyrano de Bergerac for Sydney Theatre Company in 1980, Richard III for Bell Shakespeare in 2002, and Falstaff for Bell Shakespeare in 2014 which all stand out. As Bell acknowledges in his autobiography, The Time of My Life, “I always [seem] to have more success playing grotesque characters, [the] extravagant theatrical ones.” The fact that these performances were also popular and critical successes and not just enjoyable for Bell, perhaps says something about his work: that it is the relationship with an audience that matters most to him as a performer and director. He cites his performance as King Lear in 2010 as perhaps his biggest disappointment, as he had high hopes for the role but feels that he didn’t quite get there, but really enjoyed playing Lear in Barrie Kosky’s 1998 production: even though it “created a huge furor, an extraordinary amount of hate mail and controversy, I just loved doing it; it was great fun.”

Another highlight was playing the Professor in Uncle Vanya for Sydney Theatre Company in 2010. While the production garnered critical and popular success, travelling to New York two years later, Bell appreciated the opportunity to work with Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, whose method differed greatly from his own – “[He] pushed us to the limit until we were almost weeping with frustration.”

As a director, Bell knows he is never happier than when he is “on the rehearsal floor with a bunch of actors solving problems; it’s when I’m in my element. When you start the day with a problem and a bunch of actors, and by the end of the day you’ve cracked it and found something, that’s a very exciting moment. Whether that comes from the script or from the actors’ suggestions, [or] from improvisation around the script, that’s when theatre’s very exciting.”

Even though he’s retiring from Bell Shakespeare, Bell hopes his departure will be a “smooth transition and an easy continuum” for the company. Peter Evans has been co-artistic director with Bell over the last four years, and Bell believes he is “ready to take on the full burden and joy” of running a national classical company. Bell will “step back from the company, won’t stay on the board, [and will] refuse to have anything to do with the company so [Peter] can do whatever he wants without me hovering around.”

As the company heads into its next twenty-five years, Bell says he still has high hopes of the company gaining a permanent home on Wharf 2/3 in Walsh Bay, following the State government’s announcement to develop the area as a cultural precinct. The company has recently announced a Writer in Residence program, which he hopes will continue and grow over the coming years, as well as continuing to develop new writing through their Mind’s Eye program.

Personally though, Bell “will do less, but would [still] like to do two or three things a year. Not major things necessarily, but just for the fun of it.” Acting keeps you young, he continues. “You’re working with people every night in a very convivial way, remembering lines, going through set paces and everything; it’s good brain exercise [and] a healthy occupation.”

I ask if the decision to direct The Tempest as his final show for Bell Shakespeare was a conscious one, and Bell is perhaps a little too quick to answer. “I thought maybe retrospectively there was some kind of subconscious force at play, but it wasn’t deliberate. We were looking for a show to do, [and] what was going to be a good choice for the season.” Even though it is foolish to read autobiography into Shakespeare’s work, “there is some sense of the end of a career in [The Tempest],” as it was Shakespeare’s last full-length play. “But [Shakespeare] went on, a bit like me I suppose, to keep his hand in there, collaborating on bits and pieces; he didn’t just leave one day and that was it.”

Once The Tempest opens in August, Bell is heading across town to appear on stage at Belvoir, before he directs a new production for Opera Australia next year, along with another revival of his acclaimed production of Tosca which he hopes to be able to be able to rework and revisit a few more times, “trying to make it even better than last time.”

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