After quarter of a century as patriarch of Bell Shakespeare, Bard aficionado John Bell prepares to take his final bow. By Amruta Slee.

Bell époque

Actor John Bell.

For a man whose life has been all about the theatre, there is an impressive lack of theatricality about John Bell – no plummy accents, no office bristling with photographs signed by famous friends. His modest cubicle in Bell Shakespeare’s Sydney headquarters contains few personal relics, merely a small collection of books, a desk and two modern orange chairs for social occasions. This workmanlike space illustrates Bell’s vaunted love of privacy, but it’s also a mark of how he views his job – as a craft as well as an art, and as an art that’s completely transitory. 

When you’re young, he observes about being on stage, “it’s showing off, it’s letting off steam, it’s a display of ego. But as you get older, if you’re serious about it, it becomes a craft, you’re intent on making something that’s presentable, and being satisfied you’ll make something good. Cos you’ve worked at it and trained and thought about it and practised and you make something… good. And then it’s gone.”

That doesn’t worry him one whit; it’s the making of the thing that counts. And he welcomes the fact that live performances don’t hang around haunting their creators the way screen ones might. “I think most movies 10 years on look pretty hammy … I wouldn’t want that preserved for posterity,” he muses. Even Laurence Olivier – the actor who made Bell fall in love with acting at age 15 – doesn’t escape this fate in his view. He saw Olivier live in London and felt the shock of a majestic stage presence. His movies are a poor record: “Not a lot of acting survives. It’s always curious because, if it’s truthful now, why in five years does it look false?”

This year John Bell turns 75. He is set to retire from Bell Shakespeare then and there’s a lot of talk of the contribution he’s made. Much of it is concrete. For almost 50 years he’s been synonymous with the world of theatre. In the 1970s Bell was instrumental – along with a handful of other directors, actors and playwrights – in dragging Australian stagecraft out of its stagnant routines. Later, he was the force behind the companies – Nimrod, Belvoir and Bell Shakespeare – which defied critical predictions and thrived. 

And then there’s the less measurable legacy. Anyone who has seen him perform can testify to his powers. Director Bruce Beresford, who’s been a friend since the two were in productions at Sydney University together, recalls standing backstage watching Bell play Malvolio in Twelfth Night and then saying to him when he came off, “You’re the best actor I’ve ever seen.”

 “I think in many ways that early opinion still holds true,” Beresford says now. “Certainly in relation to stage actors and certainly to Shakespeare.” Noting how many actors in Shakespearean productions “gabble their lines meaninglessly”, Beresford says Bell’s particular magic lies in his profound understanding of the characters, his moving and effortless delivery of verse. 

Bell receives accolades with a gracious scepticism – he seems to be measuring himself against a yardstick invisible to most of us. He allows that there are performances he’s been pleased with, in bits and pieces, on a good night – Falstaff, Richard III, Hamlet – but acting is still a challenge. He’s always held that he never “got” King Lear, despite having played him in three different productions. When I counter that I saw one – a Barrie Kosky version in which Bell commanded a chaotic stage, he murmurs graciously, sceptically, “Oh, that’s nice.” He then goes on to the impossibility of cracking the part: condensing that Dante-esque vision of humanity into two hours, conveying all the horror of the world while the audience yawns and fidgets and checks their programs. He spins into an anecdote about Laurence Olivier bouncing off the stage after a performance of Othello to lock himself into his dressing room. Nonplussed, one of the actors knocked on the door: “Sir Laurence?” A roar from within: “YES?” “Er … you were great tonight.” Back came the answer: “I know, but how the fuck did I do it?” 

 So, acting is an elusive art: “It’s always a mystery. You think you were great but you’re not.”

“Well, but don’t you think…” I start but Bell cuts me off with a gentle but wholly authoritative, “No.”

1 . ‘Brilliant creatures’

John Bell is of the “brilliant creatures” generation who, according to mythology, sprang up in rebellion to the dusty cultural landscape that was postwar Australia. In his case the landscape began in Maitland, NSW, but it wasn’t all that dusty. His mother’s parents had insisted on piano, violin and elocution lessons for her and her sisters; both his father and mother painted watercolours with flair. Saturday nights chez Bell were lively affairs where everyone performed something and the ultimate goal was to win a cup at the local eisteddfods. “I hated it, I couldn’t bear it,” Bell recalls amiably. “You had to do these histrionic pieces; very rounded vowels.” His mother, “an enthusiast”, encouraged any inclination of performance in her shy, stuttering son, though he was much more interested in directing. He would make theatrical backdrops from wooden bobbins and rolls of paper onto which he painted scenery. These were populated by plasticine figures for whom he invented voices and parts.

You can still see evidence of this developing consciousness; about 40 of the paper rolls – and a mini-theatre made by his father – are part of the collection at Newcastle Museum. Here are the stories that interested him: Animal Farm, several fairytales, adventure stories and Macbeth. Bell could draw, and for a while he aspired to art school. But in his teens he was lucky enough to have two teachers with a skill for bringing poetry and literature to life – and, famously, he saw a film version of Othello featuring Laurence Olivier. That changed everything. From then he was under the spell both of acting and of Shakespeare.

It was the “exotic language” of the Bard that reeled him in and has kept him hooked. “Language is so debased and manipulated and often so boring; to hear someone speak imaginatively is such a thrill,” he explains. “In the 18th century they were still very conscious of speaking well, cleverness was an accomplishment. Perhaps I’m overdramatising it but now it’s just the laconic sound bite, a few words. And yet great oratory is still so powerful, it can change governments, it can start wars, change social behaviour. Life can spin on a powerful speech – people don’t realise that.”

Then there’s Shakespeare’s vision of the world and its complexities: “Tragic, romantic, cynical, sceptical, mystical, atheistic, agnostic, it’s all there.” With other plays, he says, the layers aren’t as great, the roles are easy to play. With Shakespeare, there’s always another interpretation.

It’s no surprise that Bell fell for Shakespeare; the striking thing is how early he read his calling in the playwright’s work. At Sydney University, where his peers were Beresford, Robert Hughes, Clive James and Germaine Greer, among others, performance was a calling card (“onstage and off”). It’s easy to imagine Bell being at home among the “it” crowd; he has the characteristic impish humour and precise opinions, but even back then he also had focus. He knew where he was going – the stage, England – and where he didn’t want to go. Film didn’t interest him, he felt no impulse to write either plays or prose.

England was where you went to learn acting, where he studied and where he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, wallowed in the lively theatrical scene, and in the romantic source of what he held dear: the history, the picturesque surrounds, the chance to live in Stratford-upon-Avon – “like being in heaven”. His partner, later his wife, actress Anna Volska, followed him over and they were married there. Though he says trying to make a home with their two young daughters was a slog, it seems he’d joined the ranks of the chosen, where the only decision became, after a four-year run, whether to stay in Britain and “be a cog in this large machine” or return home. 

Australia offered chances England could not. Mostly what it offered was a moment to make his mark. 

It was the ’70s, the period just before Gough Whitlam took power, and Bell recalls the swing towards cultural nationalism. New names such as Alma De Groen, David Williamson and Alex Buzo were on the horizon. People were impatient with formalities, with theatre that was too plush and conservative, and theatrical seasons that stuck to a regular schedule of Bernard Shaw, Alan Ayckbourn, a Shakespeare, a West End hit and a Broadway hit. It wasn’t so much the content Bell and his peers were bucking against as the frozen “house style”. Telling the staunchly patient Anna that he was giving up a secure position as head of drama at NIDA, he and fellow director Ken Horler  set up their own theatre, the Nimrod, in an old stables in Kings Cross, where they would champion up-and-coming playwrights, stage rambunctious productions, insist that Australian accents be used instead of BBC English and generally do their best to upset and titillate audiences. 

He was and is excited by the new, but he never lost his taste for the classics, particularly for Shakespeare. At the start it paid the bills. “No one had heard of Williamson or Buzo. They weren’t draws. But with Shakespeare we could fill the place and that subsidised all the new Australian stuff.” It could inform what else he was doing and it was endlessly open to experimentation, to modern dress, contemporary retellings. Over the years Bell has championed a number of fresh approaches – some more successful than others.

That’s not to say that modernity alone will do. Asked if he liked Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, he responds, “I can’t say I did.” He enjoyed the visual excitement, the passion and violence, the fact it made people interested in the playwright’s works, but “a lot of the acting wasn’t terribly good and I couldn’t understand what they were saying”. Luhrmann’s film fares better than the more recent screen version of a few years back, written by “the guy who wrote that dreadful thing I can’t bear, what’s it called… Downton Abbey.” Julian Fellowes? “Yes. He did a job on the text and made it more contemporary, but it was just so boringly directed and plodding and long – it lasted a week in the cinema, maybe even a day.”

Does he regret the fact that he’s never found an Australian playwright to rival his affection for Shakespeare? “You can’t create playwrights,” he says. Having the new and the classic play off each other, “inform each other”, one providing structure and depth, the other providing contemporary political nous, is what interests him.

2 . Building an empire

When Bell founded Bell Shakespeare, a company wholly dedicated to Shakespeare’s works, there were doubts Australia’s small theatregoing audience could sustain such an enterprise. That it has is testament to his entrepreneurial side; he has built his empire on a shrewd marriage of commercial productions, educational and training programs, and forays into new theatre. It’s a point of pride that audiences here are largely locals, not tourists, the way they are in Britain or the United States. 

It can’t have been easy – a slight weariness creeps in when he talks about the perennial struggle to get funding. He read recently that Australia is now the world’s richest country – “Where are all these millionaires? Show me a few” – and wishes we followed the US philanthropy model a little more closely. He doesn’t resent the dinners and the events the company stages to raise money. He’s even learned, he says, that there are a lot of interesting, smart people working in offices, wearing suits and wielding cheques. But after 25 years of it he’s had enough. 

Next year he’ll celebrate his 50th wedding anniversary and that’s triggered an assessment of time passing. “You’ve got to say, how many good years are left?” he muses while sharing plans about a return to studying painting, his first love, and classical music and about travelling to the Nile, among other places. “How many good years – when you can climb stairs and run up the pyramids, another five or six? Then it’ll be too hard so… get it in quick.”

Bell’s idea of retirement doesn’t square with the usual definition. He is keen to direct opera – he’s done a small amount and enjoys its spectacle and scale. In between mastering art and music and running his foundation for young artists he also wants to keep a hand in directing and acting. Maybe not even just stage acting. Recently he agreed to play a role in a TV mini-series called Deadline Gallipoli about journalists covering the campaign. He only had a day between work and engagements so the production company agreed he could come to Melbourne, shoot his scenes and then get back to Sydney. What could he do in one day? He played Lord Kitchener. “So I was given a big moustache, driven around in a Rolls-Royce all day with people saluting. This is rather good, I thought! It felt very grand. It was a hoot.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Bell époque". Subscribe here.

Amruta Slee
is a Sydney-based journalist.