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

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RE­VIEW

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)

JOHN BELL

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

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