Bell prepares to bare his soul

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Actor John Bell in “One Man In His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare”… “When you get to 80 you’ve got nothing to hide.”

“ONE man in his time plays many parts”, says Jaques in the speech known as “The Seven Ages of Man” from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”.

That fits actor John Bell to a T, and in his one-man show, “One Man In His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare”, for once, he’s preparing to bare his soul.

For a notoriously private theatrical personality, Bell’s idea is to show us what makes him tick through the words of his lifelong idol, William Shakespeare.

“I probably don’t care what people think any more,” he tells me by phone from Sydney. 

“When you get to 80 you’ve got nothing to hide, but when you’re younger you’re putting up protections or else finding out who you are.”

“King Lear”, Bell Shakespeare, dress rehearsal, 2010. Peter Carroll, left, and John Bell.

When we talk, I’ve just come from the National Portrait Gallery where a portrait by Harold David shows Bell and his wife Anna Volska, his junior by four years, confronting the camera boldly, facial lines and all, showing what he means.

“It’s great to be on air again after a year of nothing,” he tells me, “but it hasn’t been too bad because I put a few shows together and wrote a book – that kept me pretty happily occupied.”

It had its genesis in a kind of “my favourite things” selection he did at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli, NSW, which he mentioned to his successor at the helm of Bell Shakespeare, Peter Evans, who said, “why not do it as part of Bell‘s 30th anniversary?” But for covid, we’d have seen it last year.

“The Merchant of Venice”, 1991, was staged in a tent pitched on the grounds of the National Aquarium.
“The Merchant of Venice”, 1991, was staged in a tent pitched on the grounds of the National Aquarium.

Administratively, the company was set up in 1990 but its first shows took place in 1991. “Hamlet” and “The Merchant Of Venice” were staged in a tent pitched on the grounds of the National Aquarium, where you had to walk through a tunnel surrounded by stingrays and, Bell swears, take a toy train to each performance – the only time that ever happened to him, anywhere.

A lot has happened since then. The company in a tent has gone on to become the nearest thing we have to a national theatre company, in which Bell himself has performed all the great roles from Shylock to Falstaff and much in between.

With time to think about it, his one-man show has developed into something less than a “greatest hits” show, to include aspects that will take people by surprise.

“I sense Shakespeare’s empathy and humanity,” he says. 

“I wanted to show how this has impacted on my personal life.”

The man himself, he says, “is so elusive, so hidden in the characters”, but Bell speculates through what he’s found in the plays, that “he must have been a very generous person, open to all sensitivities and suggestions… He had a natural empathy for people of all classes and races and a sympathy for the underdog – “think of an Othello, Shylock and a Caliban”, he says.

“Much Ado About Nothing”, 1996. John Bell as Benedick, John Adam as Claudio and Paula Arundell as Hero.

“And his understanding of women… all the great women’s roles he wrote, to be performed by male actors. I feel he was open and generous.”

Even in a play which has come in for some criticism in contemporary times, “The Taming of the Shrew”, in which he’s played Petruchio, Bell, like his contemporary Germaine Greer, believes it’s a play about the liberation of women, not their suppression.

“He shows a woman trapped in the marriage market and it’s a very funny comedy – it would be a shame to cut it out of the repertoire.”

Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, said of him, “I loved the man and do honour his memory, on this side idolatry”, and Jonson, Bell points out, could be quite bitchy.

“Henry V”, 2013.

In the show, Bell will perform some scenes he suspects audiences may not have heard before from “Timon of Athens”, “Henry IV” parts I and II, and even “Henry VI”.

But he feels it would be mean not to do some of the big showstoppers, favourites like Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and Hamlet’s “To be or not to be”, so without turning it into “Desert Island Discs”, he believes “it’s important that audiences are allowed to have their jolly”.

There’s no need to persuade Canberra readers to see the show – the theatre has already extended it to an extra performance and as Bell promises, “it’s all great stuff”.

Predictably, he admits, he will finish with Prospero’s mighty speech in “The Tempest”: “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air”.

But instead of starting the show with the baby in the Seven Ages speech “Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”, Bell has chosen something much more lyrical.

“I open with a little bit of Oberon from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows” – such poetry!” 

“One Man In His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare”, Canberra Theatre Playhouse, April 14-15, book here or 6275 2700.

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