A is for Actors
Much has changed since Bell Shakespeare began two and a half decades ago yet, at heart, it remains a company of ACTORS with open minds and unlimited energy, specialising in Shakespeare. “We have always concentrated on simple productions, with simple staging, with all the emphasis on the actors – the speaking voice and what the language can convey,” explains Bell Shakespeare founder John Bell. “I suppose of all the productions I’ve done, my last one [The Tempest] came the closest to what I’ve always aimed for: as much simplicity as possible and resisting all temptation to busy it up with effects and theatrical or technological magic rather than the magic of the words.”

B is for Boards
Artists sometimes regard them as just ‘suits’, so why do theatre companies need BOARDS of Directors? “That’s easy – to keep artistic directors in check!” laughs John Bell. “We are all answerable to somebody. Boards are so significant and too often they’re not recognised.”

Bell Shakespeare’s directors are all people at the top of their profession, which means they already have their hands full, says Bell. “Yet they work so hard and give so much of their free time – and a lot of them are financially generous too, supporting the company. The expertise and scrutiny that they bring to the company is absolutely essential.”

C is for Circus Tent
Yes, CIRCUS TENT. That’s where the first ever Bell Shakespeare productions were staged.

“Shakespeare can be exhilarating when played in rough conditions, on an unusual stage, where actors have maximum contact with, and access to, the audience,” explains John Bell. “We hired a circus tent in 1991 and we pitched it inside the Sydney Showground. It was a cheeky way of announcing a new company. On the first night some of the audience wore evening dress and thongs, or evening dress and board shorts.”

D is for Designers
When the curtain comes up on a new Bell Shakespeare production, look out for the people with red eyes, trembling fingers and unkempt hair. They are probably the DESIGNERS of the costumes, set, lighting, movement and marketing! “They work extraordinarily hard,” says John Bell. “Among the many artists that we’ve fostered and developed over 25 years, there have been many amazing designers. It has been wonderful to help those creative people up through their careers.”

E is for Evans
As in Peter EVANS, who is receiving the reigns from John Bell at the end of 2015. “Peter has so many things combined,” says Bell. “He has the energy, passion and drive to run the company. He’s a good strategist, but also has an appetite for the day-to-day nitty gritty. He also has a taste for management and working with funding bodies. Plus he’s got a very unique, easy and amiable manner with actors in the rehearsal room.”

[Listen to Peter Evans revealing what he has up his sleeve for Bell Shakespeare in 2016 here.]

F is for Fat suit
Or Falstaff. One of the greatest comic roles in theatre, Falstaff is the rotund rascal who leads everyone astray, including the future king of England Prince Hal, in Henry IV.

It took John Bell more than 20 years to finally don the FAT SUIT and play Falstaff. “I felt totally different when I put it on,” says Bell. “It’s fascinating. It just changes everything about you. Your whole demeanour, energy, tempo and body movement becomes different. I loved living in the fat suit for that period.”

G is for Gilbert
As in the late Tony GILBERT AO, who wrote a fan letter to John Bell in 1961. “This was an object lesson in being polite to your fans,” smiles Bell. “It was the first fan letter I’d ever had so I decided to reply and invite my fan out for coffee.”

It transpired that this fan belonged to a big car sales family, and over time he and Bell became firm friends. Then in 1990, Gilbert phoned Bell with an idea. “He had some money for philanthropy, put aside to promote Shakespeare, but wasn’t sure what to do,” recalls Bell. “I told him, ‘You have to start a theatre company,’ but he replied, ‘No John. You have to start a theatre company!’ he told me to take it and run with it and that was the starting point of this company. We owe him everything. Without Tony Gilbert the company wouldn’t have come to be.”

H is for Hamlet
In 1991, HAMLET was the first play performed by Bell Shakespeare. By sheer coincidence, it is also the same play being staged now during the 25th anniversary celebrations.

“We’ve actually only had five Hamlets in 25 years,” says John Bell. “So it’s fairly rare that audiences get to see Bell Shakespeare taking on this most famous of plays.”

Damien Ryan directs the 2015 production, currently on stage at the Sydney Opera House. “Damien’s Hamlet just knocks you over every time,” says Bell. “It’s totally fresh and surprising and shocking. You find yourself thinking again, ‘My God, what an amazing play’ because Hamlet is different every time you see it. The potential for re-invention and variation is endless.”

[See here for details and tickets about the current production of Hamlet]
[Read insights about the current production of Hamlet here.]

I is for Inclusive
“The whole vision when we started was to be INCLUSIVE and share the magic of Shakespeare with people irrespective of age or background or status,” says John Bell. “Little by little, it’s grown from there.”

You can say that again. Since 1991, Bell Shakespeare has participated in workshops and staged plays in every state and territory in Australia. In remote Indigenous communities, in primary, in secondary schools, in juvenile detention centres – you name it, Bell Shakespeare has been there. And through the Hearts In A Row program, Bell Shakespeare has also been able to perform for the homeless, the unemployed, and to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

[Read more about Bell Shakespeare’s community projects here .]

J is for Japan
Bell Shakespeare has also showcased Australian theatre overseas on a number of occasions, including JAPAN in 2000. A tour of August Strindberg’s Dance of Death, translated into English and directed by Roger Pulvers, saw Anna Volska, Bill Zappa and John Bell perform to audiences in Tokyo and Osaka.

“Fortunately Dance of Death made a very good impression in Japan,” recalls Bell. “We had quite large attendances and then had the chance to return the following year to do workshops in those same theatres. It was a fabulous experience for everyone involved.”

K is for Kick Ass.
As in, KICK ASS roles for women; something Shakespeare excelled at. Invariably, the female characters in his plays are wiser and wittier than the men. That’s given Bell Shakespeare the chance to put women centre stage throughout the past 25 years.

“As William Shakespeare’s career developed, so did the female parts he wrote,” says John Bell. “Women sometimes had to impersonate men to find their own voice which was an interesting social development [e.g. Portia in The Merchant of Venice, Viola in Twelfth Night]. He later wrote women who were far more heroic, compassionate or humane than the men around them [e.g. Hermione in The Winter’s Tale, Cordelia in King Lear]. Then there are two of Shakespeare’s greatest creations: Rosalind [As You Like It] and Cleopatra [Antony & Cleopatra] who toy with the men around them.”

L is for Learning
English theatre director Peter Brook once said that Shakespeare is a great school of life. Away from the spotlight, LEARNING and education form a large part of Bell Shakespeare’s activities.

This includes the remarkable Actors at Work programme, which sees young Bell Shakespeare actors touring primary and secondary schools to perform and participate in workshops. “In 25 years, we’ve reached so many students,” says John Bell. “It must be well over a million, perhaps even a million and a half.”

The purpose of work in schools is partly academic, but there are social benefits too, says Bell. “In our workshops, we get the students to perform sections or scenes from the stories. This encourages self-esteem, expression and respect. It’s character building. And one of the by-products has been reductions in school truancy.”

And it doesn’t stop there. Teachers are invited to come and work with Bell  Shakespeare every year, to help them transmit Shakespeare in their classrooms. Bell Shakespeare has also produced learning packs, a unique education iPad app, and tours a dedicated schools production in theatres every year.

[Read more about Bell Shakespeare’s education work here.]

M is for Mind’s Eye
As a theatre company mainly focused on one particular writer, Bell Shakespeare has set itself the ambitious task of leaving a legacy of new writing too. “The initiative we’ve created is called MIND’S EYE,” says John Bell. “For the past few years, we’ve encouraged writers to create new work based on an idea that has a Shakespeare connection. We’ve been developing those over the time. Four or five have actually been performed in Sydney or Melbourne with various companies. Others remain in development.”

[Read more about Mind’s Eye here.]

The Bell Shakespeare focus on writing and writers also extends beyond Mind’s Eye. The company now has its own Writer in Residence, the playwright and actor Kate Mulvany, who spends two days per week writing at the theatre company’s Sydney office. The dedicated workspace offers Mulvany access to a Shakespearean library, plus the opportunity to bounce ideas off Bell Shakespeare’s actors and creative team.

[Read more about the Writer in Residence project here.]


By Felicity McLean, author and freelance writer. @felicitymclean http://www.felicitymclean.com




You’ve been rehearsing and performing the role of Hamlet for six months now. How would you describe the experience?

Touring Hamlet nationally has been fantastic. Everyone in the cast and crew gets along, and we got to see the whole of Australia together.

For me personally, playing Hamlet has been life changing. It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. Diving into a character of this depth is something I’ve never done before.

It’s been physically and emotionally exhausting. I’ve learnt so much about my technique and stamina. Hamlet has taught me how to regulate my body to get through a show of this length. Everything you learn at drama school needs to be applied in this role.

What has surprised you about the past few months?

Playing Hamlet is like playing a game of footy every night – you really have to be match fit! The role is emotionally driven and vocally demanding, and there are a lot of physical elements too, like sword fighting and stage fighting. It has really taken me by surprise just how fit you need to be.

Seeing you on stage, it’s obvious how much emotional energy you are throwing into the role.

Yes, it’s making me a little insane actually! You feel grief. You cry every night. You feel lost and vengeful and angry. Every emotion on the human scale. And you fence. You jump into a grave. You die. If you’re committing to it and giving it a red hot go, then it really takes a lot out of you.

So how are you responding?

In the daytime, prior the show, I’m just playing video games! I’m doing things that remind me of my childhood, when I didn’t have a care in the world.

As an actor, you know it’s all pretend of course. But I spoke with Leon Ford and Brendan Cowell, who have both played Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare, and they agreed that it’s draining. They said that when you finish you need to get away and just do nothing and reset your brain.

Do you feel sympathetic towards Hamlet as a man?

I think you’ve got to be sympathetic with every character you play, because if you’re not then you’re just commenting on them. I feel strongly for Hamlet. He’s in deep grief over his father, who was his best friend and the guy who he looked up to. Then all these terrible things happen. He sees a ghost. His mother marries his uncle. It’s a snowball effect of insanity that he is rolled in to. I have massive sympathy for him.

Yet he’s capable of some quite horrifying acts too, isn’t he.

Most tragic heroes are flawed and that what’s makes them tragic. Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia is awful but it can be justified. She hasn’t spoken to him for the past two months. She’s not replying to any of his letters and he doesn’t know why. Then she appears out of nowhere after hearing him deliver his speech about “To be or not to be” and she gives all the letters back to him and says that they’re all tainted – and he can’t understand why. Also, he suspects that her father is spying on him.

If you put yourself in the shoes of Hamlet – this poor kid who is quite fragile, who goes through so much – then you can sympathise. He makes some terrible decisions but they can be justified in the sense that no-one is listening to him or giving him the time of day.

What are you hoping audiences take away from this production?

Everyone has a pre-conceived idea of what Hamlet is. I hope people arrive with an open mind and leave feeling that they’ve seen something fresh and new in the play. We’re very proud of this production; there’s clear storytelling and there are wonderful actors in it. So I hope people walk away having seen something in our Hamlet that they’ve never seen before. I think that would be great.

 Josh McConville stars in Hamlet at the Sydney Opera House from now until 6 December. Details at https://www.bellshakespeare.com.au/whats-on/hamlet/

 Interview by Andy McLean, freelance writer and journalist. @1andymclean