John Bell on Shakespeare

   Posted by: Julia Redlich   in News

For Australians surely there can be no better person that John Bell to listen to about William Shakespeare.  During his childhood in Maitland he was fortunate to have Shakespeare-loving teachers who took classes to see the Olivier Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, as well as plays performed by visiting companies (not always brilliant).   One teacher told his parents that John’s destiny was inevitable:  to become an actor.

And at Sydney University he made his first appearance in 1959 as Coriolanus in a production by Ken Horler with whom, ten years later, he was to found the Nimrod Theatre.  In the interim he had spent five years with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK.

As he left to return to Australia he admits he wondered if he was doing the right thing.  Now he recognises it is the best decision he ever made.  He has acted and directed Shakespeare for all the major theatre companies in Australia, and in 1990 he founded the Bell Shakespeare Company without which our theatre world would be a lesser place.

He gave a lively and wonderfully informed talk about his book On Shakespeare* on 11 October 2011 at one of North Sydney Library’s author presentations held in conjunction with The Constant Reader bookshop.  Naturally there was a full house, standing room only eventually, but who noticed as we listened to descriptions of Stratford on Avon and seeing the places where Shakespeare was born and died; of learning of the challenge of performing at the new Globe theatre, a replica of the original, where the vertical audience tiers mean goodbye to a subtle aside and character introspection.  Full on projection to the highest level …

The talk was kept to a reasonable length in order to have time for questions – and the first of these (from someone I could barely see across the crowded room) was about Richard III.

John Bell kindly put everyone right – and a great length – about how Shakespeare wasn’t interested in writing documentaries, but was very good at providing audiences with what they enjoyed.  He also mentioned  – and emphasised that he had no proof – that he felt that the Lord Stanley in Shakespeare’s time was a big influence on him as a writer which is why the play Richard III ends with Stanley picking up the crown and placing it on Richmond’s head, something Bell explained was historically incorrect!  This theory was something John Bell expounded on at the State Library in Sydney when the New South Wales Branch held a special evening there in the late 1990s.

Ricardians reading this book will, of course, appreciate the description of how Bell has approached performing the role of Shakespeare’s Richard three times, as well as learning of the difficulties of his adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy into two parts – Henry VI and Edward IV – to form a memorable and mammoth production of Wars of the Roses.

Although Richard III is naturally our main interest, the entire book is a fascinating insight into Shakespeare’s life and his writing from an expert point of view.

I need hardly add that, when John Bell signed my copy of the book, I thanked him on behalf of The Richard III Society for explaining Shakespeare’s unforgiveable but understandable errors.  If only he hadn’t written such a great play –and if only its woeful historical inaccuracy didn’t reinforce the myth with each production.

* John Bell, On Shakespeare, Allen & Unwin, 2011.  ISBN 9781742371931 (RRP $39.99)

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  1. Richard III Society of NSW » Blog Archive » “A small dribble on the stone of persuasion” – a media retrospective    Nov 08 2011 / 5pm:

    […] point was also made by Shakespeare actor John Bell during a recent talk he gave in […]

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