Theatre

John Bell’s solo show One Man in His Time reveals his mastery of Shakespeare’s language – and the limitations of the classic English writer’s claims to universality.

By Cassie Tongue.

One Man in His Time

John Bell on stage in his one-man show.
Credit: Brett Boardman

When John Bell was 15 years old, he read A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the first time. In that moment, as his synapses fired with the specific pleasure of poetry, his world shifted. Now 80, Bell’s whole life has been spent chasing that first feeling, that joy in words.

One Man in His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare is a carefully planned career retrospective. Delivered by the founder of Bell Shakespeare – a company with national reach that performs Shakespeare and other classical works – it’s a personal reflection of a life lived in the world of those words.

The thesis? That Shakespeare is as relevant as ever. All the pillars are there. Ethos: the credibility of Bell’s 50-plus-year career as a Shakespeare specialist. Pathos: the gently humanising experience of considering, as a group, the meaning of “to be or not to be”. Logos: the clear-minded, calmly stated argument that Shakespeare is the writer of writers, relevant always and forever.

It’s also a sermon. Bell tells us that Shakespeare’s collected works are, to him, a secular holy book and a guide to life. The performance makes this clear, as he barely talks about himself – rather, he reveals the moments in Shakespeare’s plays that have offered him meaning over the years. Shakespeare is the compass to which he set his heart, the true north through which he filters the world around him. He looks for answers in the lines: the near-nihilistic loss of trust in the monarchy in King Lear; the political spin in the history plays that feel, to him, Trumpian; the calls for equity and acceptance in The Merchant of Venice.

One Man in His Time was created and originally programmed in 2020 as part of the company’s 30th-anniversary season, but its production was scuppered by the pandemic. It’s essentially a propaganda piece that spruiks the relevance of the archetypical Dead White Male Author. By suggesting Shakespeare can diversify our stages through his writing of “strong women” and his “sympathy for the other”, Bell’s show sells short the company’s good faith expansion efforts in other areas.

At only 75 minutes including interval, the show is swift-moving and slight. It’s also skilful, pleasurable and, ultimately, frustrating. “Shakespeare’s plays are unfinished,” he says, and here he invites us in, close, to follow his thoughts. “We have to finish them.” Bell demonstrates why – he gently interacts with audience members in different sections of the stalls to show how we become touchstones and guideposts for actors performing soliloquies.

That Bell has a gift for interpreting Shakespeare is undeniable. Alone on a stage, empty but for a chair and a few props, we’re reminded of his talent: the cadence and metre are effortless on his tongue, the meanings grounded, lived-in and made real through his vessel, the body. He has a natural ease onstage as himself, too, but the magic happens when he taps into moments from Henry IV or VI or Richard II or Macbeth: he becomes them. He shares them with us. He makes us feel.

This is the contradiction of contemporary theatre: individual works can be made with generosity and vulnerability and heart, but they still more often than not operate within structures and conventions that exclude and oppress.

For Bell, the timeless potential of Shakespeare exists in the enduring capability of the plays to have meaning even now, hundreds of years later. In fact, he says, Shakespeare being so far removed from politics is a gift – he dismisses the social and political commentary of writers such as Brecht and Shaw because they answered their own questions, locked themselves in time. But Shakespeare, he says, only asks – and that is liberating.

Liberating to whom?

How does the voice of Shakespeare’s Othello liberate Black men and women? Where are their voices? What does Cleopatra’s “strength” offer women writers who have tried to build a legacy and career? How does Shakespeare work for Australia, really, when we give these stories more time, money, resources and reverence than we do stories by First Nations Australians? Aussie accents delivering a “timeless” take from a 400-year-old play have a completely different meaning if we consider we’re doing this on the stolen lands of the oldest living culture on Earth.

In a 2021 context – when theatre and media more broadly are being asked by their audiences to take accountability for their whiteness and their histories of exclusion and we can’t deny that the arts world has long made a habit of silencing non-white voices – Bell’s work feels especially myopic.

Bell Shakespeare’s arts education and community outreach makes the case for the company’s continued relevance. By allowing Shakespeare to act as metaphor and learning tool, they open up worlds through a lens of the arts, providing low- or no-cost opportunities to attend the theatre to charitable groups and students from socioeconomically challenged schools and with a regional arts education program that brings performance and pedagogy up close. They bring the arts to young people in the juvenile justice system and cast cross-racially – liberally and often.

While the company’s works have been dominated by white male directors, there are hints that it may diverge from John Bell’s proselytising path and open up. Yirra Yaakin’s Hecate, Kylie Bracknell’s adaptation of Macbeth in Noongar language, was presented at Perth Festival in 2020 in association with Bell Shakespeare. And in 2019, the company programmed Adena Jacobs to create a scorched-earth vivisection of Titus Andronicus that stripped much of the play’s original text in favour of a new devised physical work.

But to Bell the man – who opens the show by reading from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, saying, “You can’t translate that” – the words are all. The first time I saw a Shakespeare production – after I too, at 15, fell in love with Shakespeare after reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream – was in the hall of a much bigger, much better-resourced school in Orange, New South Wales, a town close to my own. Bell Shakespeare’s education arm was touring Julius Caesar. That experience was formative for me and no doubt informed my decision, too, to spend a life in the theatre.

But my devotion to these works has waxed and waned as I’ve grown older and learnt the limitations in my arts education and the Australian arts diet. Shakespeare never spoke for me; Shakespeare can’t fit the world we live in unless we force him to fit. I want a bigger world with more voices. I hear some of those voices on other Australian stages now, and I am furious that they have gone unheard for so long in favour of a white writer’s so-called universality. And I am not the only one.

Bell Shakespeare’s One Man in His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare plays at the Canberra Theatre Centre on April 14-15.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 27, 2021 as "Bard habits".

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Cassie Tongue is a theatre critic and writer living on unceded Gadigal land.