Bell and Shakespeare’s ‘good medicine’ in a time of plague

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John Bell in “One Man In His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare”. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Theatre/ “One Man in His Time”, Bell Shakespeare. Canberra Theatre till 15 April. Reviewed by SIMONE PENKETHMAN.

JOHN Bell’s one-man show was intended for another time, the year 2020, when the COVID-19 plague forced theatres around the world to close.

In Shakespeare’s own time, periodic waves of bubonic plague closed theatres in London, forcing the bard and his company to hit the road. On April 14, an audience filled Canberra’s Playhouse Theatre to capacity for the first time in more than a year.

The show’s title, “One Man in His Time” refers equally to Shakespeare and to Bell. John Bell discovered Shakespeare as a high-school student, 65 years ago. His teenage fascination became his life’s work.

In this show, Bell weaves passages from Shakespeare’s plays with his own commentary, in which he spills some of the secrets of theatre and shares insights into the Bard’s seemingly eternal relevance.

Opening with a passage from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Bell remarks on its magical musicality. His own presentation is similar to a musical concert in which an artist carefully selects, explains and presents their greatest hits. Like songs, the passages from Shakespeare’s plays evoke a visceral human response.

Bell attributes the ongoing relevance of Shakespeare to his ability to raise fundamental questions about humanity without neatly suggesting the answers.

Throughout the show, Bell gives voice to Shakespeare’s explorations of power, race, gender and honour, gently and wryly applying them to our own times.

In a famous passage from “As You Like It”, Bell describes the seven stages of man. In the sixth stage, “his big manly voice, turning again toward childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound”, and at the age of 80, Bell’s voice is still remarkable in its nimble dexterity.

This carefully curated show of two short acts acknowledges the difficulties of the past year and harnesses the power of theatre to remind us all of our humanity.

As the audience filed out into the night, I heard a woman sigh and remark, “That was good medicine”.

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