John Bell was hooked the first time his high-school English teacher read from A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1990, he staged his first Shakespeare production in a circus tent and the Bell Shakespeare Company was born. By adapting the plays to an evolving Australian audience, Bell has kept the plays relevant and popular for 25 years. This month, in anticipation of his 75th birthday next year, he announced that at the end of 2015 he will pass the reins of the Bell Shakespeare Company over to his right-hand man, artistic co-director Peter Evans.
We talked to Bell about why he is moving on and what raised his curtains in the first place.
Broadsheet: How have you juggled the role of artistic director and actor?
John Bell: I think it’s getting harder than it was when I started. Now the company’s touring to all the capital cities and to 30 regional venues, there’s a big education wing playing 300 schools around the country, working in indigenous communities and juvenile justice centres.
Also the fundraising aspect has gotten harder. About half one’s time is spent chasing after the dollar, having to spend all one’s time going cap-in-hand to sponsors and donors and governments to try to keep the thing alive.
Is the role of the artistic director/actor disappearing?
I think one can combine both. Nevertheless, I think things are getting tougher for the arts in general. There's a lot more competition than there was when this company started. You’ve really got to make a pretty loud noise to get noticed.
What is it like to, as you described it in your recent announcement, "walk side by side with the Bard" on a daily basis?
I don't feel much of a time gap. The time gap can disappear the more familiar you become with the period and the history and the social situation, the more of the language that you understand and incorporate – there's no language barrier anymore.
It’s funny, you don’t really think of them as a dead person, in a way, because the words are so alive and the issues are so alive and you are bringing them to life. It’s almost as if the author were there beside you, you keep referring to current issues and current problems and seeing those using his words.
How do you keep these plays relevant?
When I started this company we were very determined to break away from the English mould. That battle has been won, I think. If you try to make something meaningful, the only real way is to get right inside the language so you understand exactly what you are talking about. It’s really dedicating your self to communicating in every way and making it as real for the audience as possible.
Does the original text remain unchanged?
Pretty well. I don’t like cutting or changing, but sometimes I think it’s fine to do so if a phrase or a sentence becomes so obscure. Then cut it or translate it, but not anymore than necessary. It’s a lot less necessary than you’d think.
You know, it might be that in another couple of hundred years’ time we’ll have to translate Shakespeare completely like we with did with Chaucer or Anglo-Saxon [literature] or something, but as long as we keep speaking it, and speaking it intelligently, it will stay alive a lot longer. It is, after all, modern English. It’s the beginning of modern English.
Why is choice so important for Shakespeare?
I suppose in all the plays, but probably most notably in the tragedies, the characters are given choices – and we watch which way they go.
We see all these characters being set up and given some very large moral or ethical problem, and we see how they approach it. I think that’s very, very instructive, and we keep seeing parallels in politics and everyday life – we see good or bad choices being made.
Could this be seen as an overarching theme or message?
I don’t think Shakespeare had any great overarching ambition except to show life as he saw it. I think Shakespeare will last because he is not didactic or preachy. He just shows the problems that are there but then leaves us to decide what is the right and wrong of it. There is never an entirely happy ending, some people win, some people lose, there is never a conclusion to any of the tragedies – not everything is solved. There are always further problems to be solved as a consequence of what has gone before.
Are some of the plays more relevant today than others?
I think there are some, at least for our times, that speak more clearly to us. I think all the plays are, in a sense, about life, the celebration of life. I remember [Australian theatre and opera director] Barrie Kosky saying that all theatre is about death. I think the reverse. It’s all about life and how to make the most out of every minute of it, whether it’s a good day or a bad day.
What's next for John Bell?
I'm going to stay in the business. I want to slow down a bit more and have more private time, but I’m not giving up theatre completely. I'll always have one foot in there.