It’s a sparkling winter’s afternoon on Sydney Harbour but inside the Sydney Theatre Company’s Walsh Bay headquarters, veteran actor John Bell is contemplating some altogether darker issues. “Where will I finish up?” Bell ponders aloud. “Will I die in the arms of strangers or will I be looked after and spared that condition? What does it feel like as we’re heading into that dark night?”
Thankfully this extraordinary actor, named an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia, is not discussing his own imminent demise, but his upcoming role in the STC production The Father.
Written by French playwright Florian Zeller and adapted by Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ Christopher Hampton, The Father is told through the eyes of 80-year-old Andre (Bell). A former tap dancer-turned-engineer who lives in a Parisian apartment, he grows suspicious when a number of people claiming to be relations continually turn up on his doorstep. To make matters worse these people seem to be trying to take away his apartment. Or are they?
Billed as a mystery thriller, Bell says it is a profoundly moving and darkly funny play. “It’s a puzzle for the audience to work out who is telling the truth and who is lying. That’s the fun of it, it’s like doing a crossword,” he says.
Since debuting in London in 2015, The Father has gone on to earn Kenneth Cranham the Olivier Award for best actor, while the piece itself was nominated for Best New Play; and in New York it was nominated for two Tony Awards including Best Play.
When Bell was invited to read the script by former artistic director Jonathan Church he says he initially found it baffling before appreciating the writing allowed you inside the mind of the ageing Andre. “When writing about old age we tend to see it from the outside, whereas this is written from the inside, how he sees the world,” explains Bell. “It takes a good hard look at all the issues of ageing. And what’s very important is it also looks at what it’s like to cope, from the point of view of the carer of someone going into old age, and that’s a huge social issue right now. It’s a tragic farce but even though it’s ultimately a tragic story it’s not heavy-going, never sentimental, never self-pitying but tough minded.”
For audiences accustomed to seeing Bell on stage, The Father marks a welcome return. After retiring in 2015 as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare Company, the national organisation he founded in 1990, Bell has appeared only in Belvoir’s Ivanov. But though he left BSC he has by no means stopped working, directing two shows for Opera Australia (Carmen and Tosca); touring with pianist Simon Tedeschi in a performance of Richard Strauss’s adaptation of Enoch Arden; and sitting for not one but two portraits for the Archibald Prize, one of which was painted by Tedeschi’s partner Loribelle Spirovski. Next year looks even busier, with a new production of opera Madame Butterfly, directing and starring in Diplomacy at the Ensemble Theatre and directing a new Australian opera for the University of Queensland.
Although he continues to work with The Players, BSC’s education arm, Bell says the rehearsal period for The Father has been exhausting because of the nature of the play itself. “I’m on my feet all the time and in nearly every scene, I rarely stop talking,” he laughs. “And the action is out of sequence, you perform one day then the next scene is the day before and the next two weeks later so you think, ‘Hang on, where are we?’ That’s tricky. And it’s hard to learn because it’s full of strange half-finished sentences.”
The Father represents a number of firsts: the first time Bell’s regular collaborator, Sport for Jove artistic director Damien Ryan, has directed at STC, and the first time Bell has performed at The Wharf (although he has appeared in the STC’s Uncle Vanya at the Roslyn Packer Theatre).
The Father is a fitting production then, dealing as it does with mortality and a reminder to hold closer those you hold dear. “It reminds you very, very strongly how important family bonds are,” says Bell who is close to his own family – his actor wife Anna Volska, daughters Hilary and Lucy and their families. “And it reminds us how important passion, understanding and patience are to anybody who is a minority or getting older; how precious life is for everybody.”
The Father runs August 24–October 21 at Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company.