JOHN BELL ON LEAVING THE THEATRE COMPANY HE FOUNDED
Theatre legend John Bell is set to retire. He opens up (well, mostly) to Rosemary Neill about his 50-year career
JOHN Bell recently fell off a chair and brought The Rocks, Sydney’s heavily touristed historic district, to a virtual standstill. Nursing his left arm in a sling, the actor and director says with a light, dry laugh that the accident was “a great piece of theatre’’.
Bell Shakespeare, the company Bell founded 24 years ago with a circus tent, no subsidies and an “outrageous’’ sense of ambition, has offices and a rehearsal space in The Rocks, a former haunt of convicts, emancipists, sailors and pickpockets where Ugg boots and scented candles are now flogged from renovated workers’ cottages to tourists.
The actor and director, who slipped and dislocated his shoulder while hanging balloons from the heritage-protected rafters for an office party, says: “I couldn’t move, I was kind of paralysed on the floor. They had to send the ambulance. But the ambulance couldn’t get through because it was peak hour in The Rocks, so they sort of had to close off the street. It was a very dramatic piece of rescue.’’ Those famously chiselled features soften into a wide grin as he continues: “I made a grand exit to St Vincent’s. They knocked me out and put the shoulder back in and, you know, it was all OK.’’
A living legend of the Australian theatre, Bell, 73, announced his retirement from Bell Shakespeare yesterday. This signals the winding down of a 50-year career that has fundamentally shaped the Australian theatre, from Bell’s co-founding of the groundbreaking Nimrod theatre in 1970 and his establishment of Bell Shakespeare roughly two decades later, to his reputation as the country’s finest Shakespearean actor, unrivalled for his crystalline diction and deceptively fluid command of blank verse. (Deceptive because he developed a potentially paralysing stutter as an adolescent, which still stalks him if he is tired or stressed.)
Bell’s contribution is “immeasurable’’, says Peter Evans, co-artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, who will run the national touring company single-handedly once its founder steps down late next year. “John was a visionary ahead of his time,’’ says Evans. “He pioneered Shakespeare in Australia, first through the Nimrod and then with Bell Shakespeare. He gave Shakespeare an Australian voice and an Australian aesthetic.
“John was never afraid of new ideas, new directors and ways of approaching theatre. (At Nimrod) he was the driving force for countless news plays written in the 70s and 80s … As an actor, he is a wonderful leading man. He is handing over an incredible legacy.’’
THE day I meet Bell, he is still in pain (he tore a muscle when he fell), not that you’d guess. In a former colonial bond store that doubles as a scruffy rehearsal space — the dirt-caked ceiling fans look as if they haven’t been cleaned in years — he puts in a full day at rehearsals. Against doctor’s orders, he casts aside the sling and gets on with co-directing his latest show,
Monkey … Journey to the West, a music-theatre work based on a classic Chinese story, which premiered in Brisbane recently. It wraps up at Sydney’s Riverside Theatre tonight.
Tall and lean, chin jutting forward, he trains a laser-like focus on a young, multi-ethnic cast including blonde, musclebound acrobats who stretch and dangle from some temporary scaffolding like restless chimps. At lunchtime and after work, he does a couple of interviews for this article before heading to a reception on a visiting Japanese military ship, the Kashima, docked at Sydney’s Garden Island.
Still slingless, Bell climbs up to the deck on a steep, slightly wobbly ladder. I observe no other septuagenarians doing this, let alone one with a busted shoulder. “It was agony at first,’’ he says
I’VE GOT NO GREAT PASSION ANY MORE TO DO IT (RUN A COMPANY)
of his injury, “but I take the sling off because it irritates me. It should be in the sling for the next month; a damn nuisance.’’
It says something about the longevity of his career that Bell has pressed on with a timetable that would wear out much younger artistic directors, despite his injury. During the past month he has conducted rehearsals, auditions and meetings in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra — the last pit stop was an arts dinner with Tony Abbott.
Nevertheless, it’s this unrelenting pace that has prompted him to step down from the troupe that bears his name. “I do want to spend more time with Anna (Volska, his wife and a former actress),’’ he reveals. The couple will celebrate their 50th anniversary next year, and he says that “after 25 years (of Bell Shakespeare) it’ll be just a good time for a whole change of regime, a change of life. You wake up and you think, ‘Well, how many good years are there left?’ ”
His visit to the Japanese warship — where he hammers open a cask of sake alongside Olympic great Dawn Fraser, splashing his clothes in the process — is the result of his friendship with Japanese Consul-General Masato Takaoka, whom he met at a butoh performance. The Kashima is packed with officers from the Japanese and Australian navies in their freakishly pristine uniforms, precariously balancing tempura prawns and sake on tiny white plastic trays. At one point, a half-dozen sailors pose for a photograph, leaning into the lens, each holding up a clenched fist. A Japanese military band plays I Still Call Australia Home.
It’s not the usual theatre soiree, yet Bell looks at home in his tweed jacket and black polo neck, asking trainee Japanese officers about their rank and training mission around the Pacific. When I last spy him, he is deep in conversation
with Takaoka, and sipping from a traditional square sake cup.
BY the time he steps down from Bell Shakespeare, he will have presided over two large companies (Nimrod and Bell) for 39 years. That’s an unmatched innings in this country’s modern theatre history. He says running a company is all-consuming: at Bell, he has toured relentlessly, negotiated with funding bodies, wooed sponsors and donors, planned seasons, attended board and committee meetings, and taken on onerous acting and directing roles.
Across a five-decade acting career he has scaled the peaks of Shakespeare’s canon — he has played Richard III, Prospero and King Lear three times apiece. Wearing a costume with an built-in hump, he won a Helpmann Award for his 2002 portrayal of Richard III. As his Richard murdered his way to power, Bell gleefully mined the play’s humour, driving home the reality that psychopaths can be charmers. He wowed the critics again last year as Falstaff in
Henry IV; with long, greasy hair and a steelwool beard, the chains of a leather waistcoat straining across an ample beer belly, he resembled an ageing bikie boss.
But surely all this frantic multi-tasking has meant his family — Anna, and daughters Hilary and Lucy, a respected playwright and actress respectively — often found he was unavailable? He responds candidly: “Well, this is behind my stepping down next year, really. Whatever time I have left, I want to break that pattern … I just think it’s time for change.’’
Bell wants to “keep in touch’’ with theatre and opera, “just doing the things that come along that really appeal to me’’. He confesses — and this is a big admission for our leading exponent of Shakespeare; a man who sometimes catches himself reciting his lines out loud in airport queues — that “I’ve got no great passion any more to do it (run a company)’’. Taking on the odd acting or directing gig, he says, will be “fun, but when you’re very young that’s all you live for. You have to be working; directing or putting on the shows or acting. That’s your whole adrenalin, everything depends on that.’’
Bell turns 74 next month and has started to think, “hang on, there are other aspects to life’’. Despite this declaration, he mentions, more than once, that he’s open to doing more film and television work. He recently spent his first day in front of the cameras in 40 years; he will play British politician Lord Kitchener in the forthcoming Foxtel miniseries Deadline Galli
poli, alongside Bryan Brown, Sam Worthington and Rachel Griffiths. The drama is about journalists who resisted the military censorship surrounding the 1915 landing at Anzac Cove. “I played Lord Kitchener for a day, riding around in a Rolls-Royce and being saluted, and I thought, ‘This is all right,’ ’’ he quips.
So will this stage veteran, who absorbed his deep sense of vocation from the Catholic Marist brothers who educated him in Maitland, NSW, in the 1950s, really let go? After all, as he struggled with the Nimrod in its declining years in the 80s, he swore he would never take on another theatre company. In his memoir, The
Time of My Life (2002), he wrote: “In 1984, I was determined never to run a theatre company again. Fourteen years in harness at Nimrod had worn me out; the political squabbles within the theatre, the continuing financial crises, the ongoing battles with funding bodies ... all this had left me dried up, exhausted and disenchanted.’’
Yet a few years later he was “back in harness’’, setting up a national company with seed money from his friend and Bard devotee Tony Gilbert. He credits Gilbert with instilling in him the “outrageous ambition’’ needed to establish an initially unsubsidised and venue-less touring company dedicated to the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
The company was launched with a circus tent production of Hamlet in Sydney in 1991. The tent’s sightlines were lousy and the acoustics were worse. Then there was the January heatwave. Bell has written of gratefully watching “Gough Whitlam in the front row, perspiring and purple as a plum in his black tie, applauding valiantly at the end”.
In a potentially ominous sign, Hamlet closed
in Melbourne four days after it opened because of poor ticket sales. But Bell persisted and eventually, his company achieved Major Performing Arts funding status alongside the likes of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Opera Australia and the Sydney Theatre Company. It has played to nearly 2.5 million Australians, from well-heeled Sydney Opera House and Melbourne Arts Centre patrons to kids in tworoomed, outback schools.
The company has had its share of hits and misses, as it sought to keep the classics alive and, through a distinctively Australian way of performing them, “make them our own’’. Bell was not averse to taking aesthetic risks, engaging auteur directors including Barrie Kosky, Michael Bogdanov and Steven Berkoff. In 1998, Kosky had him play King Lear in a pink petticoat, brandishing a dildo as a sceptre. “Not my own choice,’’ Bell says, chuckling. “King Lear’s mad scene at Dover, and Barrie said, ‘I want you to put on Cordelia’s pink slip, her big pink fur coat, a tea cosy on your head, and hand out dildos to people at a bus shelter.’ So that’s what I did. I didn’t question it.’’ Some critics did. Wrote the Sunday Herald Sun’s Veronica Matheson: “This is repulsive, stomach-churning, bloody, beastly, in-your-face, X-rated madness.’’
Bell jokes later: “I’m astonished what actors will put up with, you know.’’
Asked to nominate his career highlight, he says: “I guess founding this company. It’s been a third of my life now, creating it and running it and maintaining it. Shakespeare was what attracted me to theatre in the first place and sustained me through all my early years. I think this company is what I’m most proud of.’’ He also mentions his role as co-founder of the Nimrod Theatre in 1970, another landmark in the evolution of Australian theatre. “We did over 100 productions of Australian plays when I was there, mostly new,’’ he says. Nimrod helped launch the careers of playwrights including Alma De Groen, Louis Nowra and Michael Gow, and focused national attention on others, among them David Williamson and Stephen Sewell.
Yet, in one respect, it was improbable Bell would ever perform in a community hall, let alone emerge as a leading interpreter of Shakespeare who was contracted to the Royal Shakespeare Company during the 60s. That “frightful’’ childhood stutter could have seen him swear off public speaking for life. Instead, it became a catalyst for him getting into theatre. Acting, he explains, was a way “of putting myself through it and making myself go on stage and speak and beat it that way. It was pretty excruciating for a long time.’’
He says it took 20 years to master the problem, which must have been terrifying for an actor who specialises in 400-year-old classics. “It could overtake me in performance, too, and I had to find ways of getting around it,’’ he reveals. “It took a long time to eradicate and it still can happen. If I get overtired or nervous it can come back, but not as crippling as it was when I was adolescent. ’’
An atheist and republican, Bell is a strange hybrid of frankness and discretion, warmth and aloofness. At times, interviewing him can be like trying to prise open a clam with a toothpick. Asked about career lowlights, he insists, unconvincingly, that “there haven’t been any’’.
There is a withheld quality about him that he admits can feed into his performances: “That’s probably why I have been more successful in the really extrovert, more grotesque roles like Arturo Ui, Richard III, Cyrano de Bergerac: they’re all grotesques, deformed, grotesque comic characters. Falstaff’s the same — they’re my most successful, I think, and the ones I’ve been happiest playing, so it’s getting right outside myself and being totally immersed in somebody else — just presenting something that’s not me.’’
In contrast, he was disappointed with his portrayal of King Lear in 2010, which was meant to be a highlight of Bell Shakespeare’s 20th anniversary season. Critics found the production underpowered and Bell fesses up that his performance “was a big disappointment’’. He asks: “Can you ever succeed with King Lear? I don’t know. The expectations are so high, and the presumptions you bring to it … I really felt I fell short and I just couldn’t hack it.’’ He feels he made the mistake of “trying to get into myself. I would have been far better off to play an extrovert, cranky old man.’’ He may be stepping down from his leadership role, but he won’t be disappearing from the stage. He will direct an as-yet unannounced production for Opera Australia in 2016 and will oversee revivals of his acclaimed version of Tosca, set in Nazi-occupied Rome, in Melbourne and Sydney next year.
In his swansong season for Bell Shakespeare, he will play the melancholy nobleman Jaques in
As You Like It and work with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on a music-theatre piece featuring excerpts from Romeo and Juliet. He will also direct The Tempest — significantly, a play about a man who is giving up his magic island and retiring. He muses aloud: “Was that just coincidence, or was there a conscious thing in there somewhere? I’m still not sure.’’
He predicts the handover to Evans, whom he has been grooming as his successor for years, will be seamless: “Peter’s well integrated into the company, he’s doing a great job, he’s well liked, so he’s absolutely ready now to take over.’’ Still, Bell is retiring in a tough financial climate. Corporate sponsorship, he says, is becoming harder to obtain and next year’s season is a costconscious, pared-back affair. He says: “This next season we’re really cost-cutting, we’re using small casts for instance, and smaller plays, we’re doing shorter seasons. We’re doing all that we can to keep in the black, but it’s an ongoing struggle.’’
Asked if audiences will see much of him at Bell Shakespeare beyond next year, he says half-jokingly: “That will be up to Peter. I would suggest, if I were him, I wouldn’t employ me. I’d have a break, and maybe the year after or the year after that, maybe if there’s any very old man parts going. But I think it has to be his company now.’’
Suddenly, it’s time for Bell to get back to rehearsals. “I can’t keep the actors waiting,’’ he says, a note of anxiety creeping into that perfectly modulated voice.
Even after a half-century of wrangling major companies and monster roles, he insists: “I’ve got to set a good example.’’
John Bell, left, in a reflective mood; right, playing Falstaff in
Henry 4; far right, in a 1963 production of
Hamlet; and below, as King Lear, a role he has played three times during his career
Bell Shakespeare’s Peter Evans