All The World’s A Stage

John Bell AM OBE, Artistic Director of The Bell Shakespeare Company took some time off his busy schedule to share with Kakiseni readers some insights on the Bard and Australian theatre.

Shakespeare has a long history on the Australian stage. Is Bell Shakespeare the first ever national-level company expressly dedicated to staging his work? If so, why do you think it took such a long time for such a company to be established, if not, how is Bell Shakespeare different from these other groups?

Shakespeare has a long tradition of theatre companies touring Australia. Until now these were all “commercial” companies, depending entirely on box office takings, without any support from government or corporate sponsorship.

Economics have changed so much over the last fifty years that it is no longer possible for theatre (and other performing arts} to exist on a purely commercial level. All are now heavily dependent on both government and corporate support.

The Bell Shakespeare Company does travel a lot further than previous Shakespeare companies. We perform in every major city and approximately thirty smaller regional areas. We tour large-scale productions, smaller more portable ones, education teams working in schools and specialist groups dedicated to teachers’ workshops, executive training programmes and classes for children who are socially disadvantaged.

Unlike previous Shakespeare companies, which were more “traditional” and British in approach, the Bell Company performs in modern dress and emphasises contemporary themes in the plays. Shakespeare’s texts are not cut, translated or distorted in any way – simply brought to life by having their eternal relevance revealed.

The rallying cry of ‘dead white men’ and its “backlash against the cannon” put a host of classic texts out of favour in certain theatre circles around the world. There now appears to be renewed interests in these works. Why do you think this is so, and how has it affected the reception to your repertoire?

The ‘dead white men’ catch-cry was a short-lived trend, fashionable for only a moment. Educators and theatre­ goers soon realised they were missing out on some of our greatest literature and cultural landmarks.

Things have swung back the other way with a vengeance.

What makes Shakespeare’s plays so significant in our contemporary world has a lot to do with Shakespeare’s pre-eminence as the finest thinker in the English language. Particularly his understanding of human character. His plays deal with eternal and universal issues providing food for our minds and souls. Essentially the big issues both morally and intellectually.

Bell Shakespeare is built around being relevant, not about preserving Shakespeare in a museum. Therefore all my choices are critically focussed on the contemporary experience.

You speak of strategies to “discourage the notion that Shakespeare is necessarily imported”. Can you share with our readers some of the ways that Bell Shakespeare has achieved this within the Australian context?

Australian Theatre has long been dogged by an attempt to ape British Theatre (especially in performing the classics) by having actors adopt British accents and perform in a style familiar from English films and touring companies.

I decided many years ago that we had to build our own Australian Theatre; both by creating new works and by presenting the classics in a way that was uniquely “ours”. This does not always mean the actors performing in particularly Australian costumes and settings with broad accents; but it does mean highlighting Australian attitudes to things like royalty, hierarchy, authority, humour, male friendship, male – female relationships, violence and other social phenomena.

Your upcoming show in KL is said to feature some of your favourite speeches. Is there one Shakespearean character you enjoy portraying more than others? Why? Any character which is more problematic for you as an actor than others?

Of all the Shakespeare roles I have played, the favourite would have to be Hamlet – the most enigmatic, humorous, passionate, emotional, inquiring mind. But I also loved the lip-smacking villainy of Richard III and the journey from rage to redemption of Prospero. You always need to connect a character’s life-journey with some element of your own.

The highly successful “Actors At Work” schools’ program held in KL earlier this year featured excerpts of plays directed at students studying Shakespeare. The upcoming show also features excerpts. Are there plans to have full-length productions in Malaysia in the near future?

The Bell Shakespeare Company is very eager to expand all its work into South-east Asia – education work as well as major productions. It is important for us as artists to imbibe the rich variety of Asian cultures and I am encouraging more cross-fertilisation of Asian/Australian performers, designers, musicians etc. I also believe we have a lot to offer Malaysian audiences with the universal genius of Shakespeare.

First Published: 21.10.2003 on Kakiseni

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