Watching him rehearse was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had in the theatre. In 1980 John Bell was playing the protagonist in Cyrano de Bergerac and I was assistant director to Richard Wherrett. Where other actors will show you flashes of their character during rehearsals, Bell seemed to be thinking aloud about Cyrano rather than emotionally inhabiting him. Bit by bit he was assessing, ruminating on and formulating his character, but even in the previews I could see only parts of Cyrano’s flamboyant persona.
Opening night was a revelation. Here was a fully rounded emotional and physical realisation of the character. It had been a stunning example of how an actor can slowly and thoughtfully construct a role.
In the early ’70s, many good judges began suggesting that Bell had the potential to be the antipodean Laurence Olivier. Wonderful things were said about his 1973 Hamlet. His young, lithe body and the confident and feline way he moved were beautiful to watch, although his voice struck me as curious: an Australian accent in possession of a deeply theatrical ring reminiscent of the English stage. He had spent five years acting in England, including three years at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Bell was an essential part of the early 1970s’ flowering of Australian drama. He co-founded, with Ken Horler and Richard Wherrett, the Nimrod: a tiny theatre in Kings Cross, specialising in so-called larrikin or knockabout theatre. He had graceful and theatrical good manners that seemed to hide a shy man.
In 1986 he was cast in Hunger, a telemovie I wrote, and it seemed curious to me that Bell had done so little film work. He joked that he wasn’t handsome enough for the movies. He played a Romanian ambassador to Australia – a rather chilly, distant man – and he seemed guarded, as if hiding something. Film acting is about the actor convincing the audience that they can see inside him, that there is no barrier between the actor and the character. But, with Bell, you sensed he was protecting himself, as if the camera lens was intruding on his private world.
In John Duigan’s film Far East – a lame attempt at remaking Casablanca – Bell played Peter Reeves. This also seemed a defensive performance, as if the actor was unnerved at being unable to control what the camera saw. On the stage, where he can manipulate the audience directly without the filter of celluloid, Bell is more comfortable.
There have been some marvellous performances, such as his Cyrano and his Richard III. Both are men who are never truly themselves with others and, because they are always performing, an actor playing them can be flashy and outrageous. It is in parts such as Macbeth and King Lear that Bell has floundered.
His 1982 Macbeth, with Robyn Nevin, was a muted performance, as if he had no way of resolving the contradiction between the abstract, barren set and the claustrophobic nature of the play. His three attempts at Lear are equally instructive. During his first, in 1984, I kept on waiting for Bell to cut loose and reveal Lear’s inner wrath and madness, but he never did. It was clear he had thought deeply about the character, however all that came across was framework. It was as if he was showing the engine of the car rather than the whole vehicle. His second Lear was in a misdirected Barrie Kosky production where he seemed lost among the usual Kosky clutter of ideas. Recently he performed Lear again, and later said that his performance was the greatest failure of his career. He’s probably right. Bell seemed more like a store manager barking orders at his quivering shop assistants than a king undergoing profound inner torment. You also knew he was unsure because his voice developed a telltale brittle flutter that seemed a symptom of his anxiety. Part of Bell’s inability to perform Macbeth and Lear is that he is too guarded – suspicious, perhaps, of the existential terror that defines both men’s experiences.
Despite not being keen on Ibsen or Strindberg, he’s done some of his best work as Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler, Pastor Manders in Ghosts and Edgar in Dance of Death. These Scandinavian characters are damaged and repressed, driven by a desire to inflict the inner pain they feel on others. The bitter cool Bell brings to these parts – including to his recent Mephistophilis in Marlowe’s Faustus, played as a louche and cold-blooded reptile – conveys a truer sense of his ability than the Shakespearean roles. It was probably a mistake for both Bell and his fans to think of him as the next Olivier: his strengths are not in the protean energy and sexual strut of the Englishman but, rather, in showing us the torment and anger of a man actively hiding the true nature of his soul.
The burden of being called the next Olivier is akin to a young cricketer being extolled as the next Donald Bradman, but Bell may have courted this accolade: Olivier was essential to Bell’s call to acting. He copied Olivier’s mannerisms and make-up, and understood how essential the great Shakespearean roles were to his idol’s reputation.
Bell was a vital cog of the new drama in ’70s and ’80s Australia, directing several of David Williamson’s best plays (The Removalists, Handful of Friends, Travelling North and The Club), Peter Kenna’s A Hard God and Ron Blair’s funny and disturbing Christian Brothers. But, in his colourless 2002 memoir, The Time of My Life, he races through his close involvement as a director and actor with these plays. He seems uninterested in them and, except for a couple of tepid anecdotes, is content to merely include them in a catalogue of titles and names.
When he writes about the Bard the memoir is most gratifying. Bell was a Newcastle boy and went to the Marist College in Maitland where, at age 15, he encountered an inspirational teacher, Brother Elgar, who introduced him to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Not long after, he saw Olivier’s film Henry V, and decided: “All I wanted to do was walk in Olivier’s footsteps.”
After leaving the Nimrod and spending the second half of the ’80s freelancing, he founded the Bell Shakespeare Company, and he has continued in the role of artistic director for the past two decades – acting in, directing or overseeing some 50 productions. There have been some notable successes, such as Henry IV, which conveyed a strong sense of generations at war with one another. His comedies, which have a touch of the knockabout Nimrod to them, show him as a crowd-pleasing showman, as in this year’s Much Ado About Nothing. But, as he readily admits, some productions have been marred by young actors unable to speak Shakespearean English with any authority – or even maintain the illusion they understand what’s being said. I had doubts about a Shakespeare troupe lasting in Australia, but Bell proved me wrong.
At his best he has enthralled audiences by giving the plays a particularly Australian slant, both in accent and acting style. Yet there is always a sense his productions are holding back from a more progressive approach. Bell acknowledges that he urges directors and actors “to err on the side of caution”, and that he sees his company as having a “conservationist role” in keeping the plays alive. But this can lead to productions being stillborn. Perhaps his most undervalued role has been his enthusiasm for taking the productions to schools and mentoring young actors. He’s a natural schoolteacher.
Now aged 70, still a proselytiser for Shakespeare, Bell has written On Shakespeare (Allen & Unwin, 448pp; $39.99). A great portion of the book has virtually been cut and pasted from his memoir. There are chapters on Shakespeare himself, chapters on directing and acting in his plays, and then a run-down of all of Shakespeare’s plays. But Bell is also giving an account of just how essential Shakespeare is to his being. Once he had given up the Catholic faith (in his early twenties), it was art, especially as personified by Shakespeare, which became for him “the greatest form of spirituality”. The Bard is Bell’s religion.
For those who know their Shakespeare the book is a bit of a plod, not helped by Bell’s reliance on clichés (“The genie was out of the bottle”; “he had a good nose for business”; “actors are nailing their colours to the mast”; and “Olivier broke the mould”). Everyone has their own Shakespeare, of course, and Bell’s is subversive, sceptical and agnostic. His conviction that “only a consummate actor could have written the roles of Hamlet and Richard III” seems a tad speculative. What stunned me was Bell’s cockiness when discussing King Lear’s notoriously difficult first scene: “Once I crack that opening scene the rest is pretty plain sailing.” It’s hard to tell if he’s joking here, but it could explain why he hasn’t conquered the role.
One of Bell’s oddest approaches is to write about the playwrights Robert Greene and Ben Jonson, and Shakespeare’s fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell, as if he is conducting interviews with them. Greene is surrounded by empty wine bottles, a bawling baby, a steaming chamber pot and hearty swigs of Renish; Ben Jonson is at the Mermaid Tavern tucking into a venison pastie, with a pot of ale at his elbow and a bull terrier at his feet. This is all very twee and the dialogue in these faux interviews is trite.
It made me wonder just who On Shakespeare is for. It is not for adults knowledgeable about Shakespeare and theatre. This is the book Bell would have wanted when Brother Edgar revealed to him the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For a novice who has just fallen in love with Shakespeare, Bell is an excellent first guide.
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