Hear John Bell in conversation with Genevieve Jacobs.
John Bell is adjunct professor at the Sydney School of Education and Social Work. His ongoing association with the school is integral to the linking of drama and English curriculum.
In 1991, John founded the Bell Shakespeare Company where his productions have included Hamlet, The Taming of the Shrew, Pericles, Julius Caesar and Wars of the Roses.
John's personal repertoire of characters from Shakespeare has included Hamlet, Shylock, Henry V, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear and Titus Andronicus. He has also directed a production of Madame Butterfly for Oz Opera, which toured nationally.
In association with the Canberra International Music Festival.
Speakers: Kathryn Favelle (K), Genevieve Jacobs (G), John Bell (J)
Location: National Library of Australia
Date: 30 April 2018
K: Good morning. Could I have asked for a better way to start my working week. Welcome to the National Library and to the Canberra International Music Festival. I suspect some of you have been festivalling all weekend and you've heard lots of music, but this morning we're going to hear lots of words, just to change things up a little bit. For those of you who don't know me, my name is Kathryn Favell and I'm Director of Community Outreach here at the Library. And this is one of the perks of my job.
As we begin this morning, I'd like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land. It's beautiful autumn morning. This land has been hearing music and words for thousands and thousands of years and I thank our Elders past and present for caring for this land that I'm now very privileged to work and to live on.
We're delighted, of course, to partner with the Canberra International Music Festival to several events in the 2018 program. It's not our first collaboration with the festival for the year. Earlier this year some of you may have been at the wonderful premiere of Moya Henderson's work, the Dombrovskis quartet that the festival organised for us as part of our gorgeous exhibition, Dombrovskis Journeys into the Wild and it was a gorgeous way to conclude the exhibition. So we're delighted to welcome the festival back and particularly to welcome back our guests this morning.
John Bell, of course needs no introductions, but what you may not know is how strongly represented he is in the National Library's collections. There are books, there are theatre photos, there are programs, there are oral history interviews including interviews by the late and great Hazel De Berg and in the Esso performing arts collection. We also are privileged to be the custodians of John's papers and those of his wife, Anna Volska, and those of his sister, Maureen Sysner, who's been collecting, I suspect, John's career since the very first moment it began.
Joining John in conversation today is Genevieve Jacobs and we love having Genevieve with us, she's part of our family, our local family, but today she's here with us again in her role as a board member of the Canberra International Music Festival. Please join me in welcoming John Bell and Genevieve Jacobs.
G: Thank you, Kathryn, and good morning to you all. I must say, I've had many an occasion sitting in exactly this position at the National Library but never at 9:30 in the morning. So I congratulate you all on your fortitude in turning out on this glorious Canberra autumn day and I see many familiar faces, it's lovely to be here with you. And I am indeed a board member of the Canberra National Music Festival. So perhaps this connection is just a little surprising on the face of it in the context of a music festival with someone who has shaped Australian theatre as we know it today. And as Kathryn said, John's had an extraordinarily distinguished career. He's been everything from a former associate artist with the Royal Shakespeare company, co-founder of the Nimrod Theatre, an Officer of the Order of Australia, the Order of the British Empire, he has an Honorary Doctorate of letters from the Universities of Sydney, New South Wales and Newcastle and in 1997 the National Trust named him a living treasure, someone garlanded with awards. John, good morning to you.
J: Good morning anyway.
G: In fact you've actually also had in the context of that long theatre career, quite a connection with music in a number of ways. You've had a dozen or so major productions for Opera Australia. How comfortable are you as an actor and director working with music?
J: The opera world is very weird. It's very exciting to put together an opera and when you have that opening night and you have 80 people in the pit, another 80 on the stage and a rather larger budget than one is normally used to it can be very thrilling and especially if you're working on such a great piece of work as many of the major operas are.
The frustrating things about opera are first of all working with the actors as opposed to singers. When you work with a bunch of actors on a play, they all arrive on the first day and we start on a level playing field and nobody quite knows where we're going to be heading or what we're going to achieve. No-one has explored their characters. The director gives some indication of where we might be heading with this thing but over the next five weeks organically you shape it together and everybody's there all the time pitching in ideas listening to what's happening, maybe working on re-writes if it's a new play. So it's a very organic operation. And the actors don't know their words, they're learning their words as they go and so that too is a matter of complicite with the other actors.
But then you come to the opera and when I arrive as director all the singers come in and they all know their parts off by heart, they've been studying these parts for months with the <inaudible 5:32> de terre. Many of them have sung these roles before, so really all the director can do is say well this is the visual concept, this is the world we're creating. I'll be a traffic warden and tell you where I want you to go and make stage pictures and try, as far as I can, to develop relationships and make the acting look as real and natural as possible. Give you as much business to do with each other and with props and furniture and so on to make it look as real as can and that's all I can do.
And with many of the opera singers that's okay, they'll go along with that. Others will arrive and say, no, I don't do that. There's a story that Elke - I forget his surname, I'm sorry, but she told me she was directing Grace Brumby in a production. I forget which one it was. And so Grace Brumby arrived for the first rehearsal and Elke said to her, now Miss Brumby, what I'd like you to do is you enter up there on the left, you walk across there and down those stairs then you'll come around the fountain and then you'll go across there and then you come over here and then you start to sing. And Grace Brumby said, Elke, honey, that sounds lovely. It is a beautiful idea, but honey what I do is, I comes up there, I comes down there and I stands there and I sing. And when I've finished singing I sit over there. Well Miss Brumby, okay, that's fine and now this is your costume. No, honey, this is my costume. Out of her bag she had her own costume, she'd travelled with that and she knew exactly what she was going to do.
So if you get somebody like that the director becomes a bit extraneous and thinks well. So, but as I say, if you have the opportunity to work with singers from the beginning and you can make it as organic as possible, that's all fine and I've done three major productions at Opera Australia and another one for Victorian Opera. But the problem then is after I've done the first production I don't get invited back and I think it's to do with paying people. So my assistant director will then mount the production the following years, so if say Toska or Carmen stay in a repertoire for 10, 15 years as they often do, I have no further part in it. The assistant director or some people come in and look at the video tape or look at the notes and he or she will restage it.
And hopefully they will do it more or less according to what I had in mind, but others might think they might improve on what I've done or have other ideas or the singers might have other ideas, so I tend to not to go back and see it because I might not recognise it four or five years later.
One of the other frustrations is, even the first time you do the opera and I did this with Carmen and Toska in recent years. I arrive on the first day and say where are the principle singers, oh they'll be arriving three days before we open. Oh, I see. So you'll be rehearsing the covers, the understudies. You'll rehearse with them and put them into it and then on the - in the last three days the singers will arrive from Alla Scala or The Met or wherever and then you'll put them in. So it's not quite the same thing.
G: Well the word diva springs to mind, doesn't it.
J: Well they're generally very pleasant but it means you haven't had the opportunity to really talk about relationships and detail with them, they come in and they'll more or less do what you - I ask them to do but, you know. And there's always the battle between the conductor and the soprano, and/or tenor. That's always - you tend to stand back and let them slug it out because it's - it can be a real bean feast when they disagree.
G: Has music always been a part of your own creative life, is there a continuing thread of music in what you do?
J: Well in my private life there certainly is. I never have ABC Classic FM turned off, it's always running 24 hours a day. And most of the plays I've done do involve music, especially with Shakespeare, he uses music all the time, not just for dancers and masks and processions and so on but music as a healing power, a mystical power in music for Shakespeare, when people like King Leer or Pericles are on their deathbeds they can be brought back to life through music. Plays like Midsummer Nights Dream and the Tempest are replete with music as a magical mystical force that governs the universe, creates nature as we know it. So music's very important, I think, and the fact that Shakespeare used it so much and in so many different ways indicates how significant it can be and should be in theatre.
G: And at every level in the theatre, I think, if we consider if there were no music, certainly on television, if there's no music we're being subtly guided often along the way, aren't we, we're being given cues.
J: Oh yes, that's right. I much prefer to see a movie without any music, frankly -
J: - because if you see a film and there's no music or soundtrack and there's just the actors and the dialogue, then you're getting the real deal. When they start putting in soupy music underneath to tell you what to feel and what to think and here comes the villain and this is the emotional bit and this is the sad bit, you're being manipulated and that's - I can resent that and I often try to - wish I could just scrub the soundtrack out and listen to what's happening and see if it would stand up without that musical reinforcement, if you like.
G: Tell me just a little before we move on to Tennyson, which I want to do in a moment, but tell me a little about your own personal musical tastes. What do you enjoy?
J: Oh, well I suppose strictly classical, if you like, but ranging from early music right through Baroque, romantic, into the modern era. I'm pretty open to anything.
G: Good, it sounds marvellous. So, Tennyson, you mentioned melodrama a moment ago.
G: High melodrama. As far as I'm aware, Tennyson has not been in fashion for a very long time, although I certainly - I vividly remember a small leather bound navy book from my childhood and I can remember reading the Charge of the Light Brigade and the Lady of Shalott. He was an utterly towering figure of his age, wasn't he?
J: Oh yes, Poet Laureate - the Queen Victoria and immensely popular throughout Victorian and Edwardian ages. At school we read Tennyson and I loved some of those poems like the Land of the Lotus Eaters, the Morte D'Arthur. There are some wonderful passages. And very - real old-fashioned word of music, if you like, some of which still is there in In Our Garden. But I think the moderns tended to despise Tennyson being too conservative in his politics, his religion, the social constraints of the Victorian age, they're all there in Tennyson. And I suppose that's okay, one can live with that, but there's an escapist element, I suppose, that especially a thing like the Morte D'Arthur, that pre-Raphaelite obsession with a theory in legend and medievalism, which is reflected in <inaudible 13:29> like Victorian gothic architecture, for instance, and all those paintings of the pre-Raphaelites.
It was an escapist tendency to get away from the ugliness of the industrial revolution. Let's go to somewhere that was nostalgic and beautiful and everybody was noble and lovely and chivalrous, all that sort of thing. And I think after the First World War, it became impossible to look at that as a way of living. The First World War, I think, shattered that illusion of escapism and nostalgia and the moderns said let's get real, let's get down to earth and write a new kind of poetry, a new kind of expression of what the world is really like and not trying to hide in the past and I think that's one reason Tennyson went out of fashion, but I still go back to his poems, just for the word music alone, it can be very beautiful.
G: So In Our Garden, which John performed yesterday, and I'm not sure, were many of you there yesterday, I know my - lots of people were there yesterday and I think it was a curious thing, I felt that we were having a marvellously evocative experience, but at the same time I put my little critics hat on and thought, how ripe the language was, how - the presumptions that are embodied within the pace about the order of things is really remarkable. Everyone is, as you say, noble, everyone acts with great decency.
J: If only that were recurrent, it would lovely, wouldn't it?
G: Yeah, absolutely. So here we are in 2018 in, as you say, a very different world. How do you then approach creating a production of something that has such different resonance, it's almost from an utterly different world.
J: Yes, I think well if a piece - well take In Our Garden, I suppose, as an example, if a piece has its own artistic integrity and is a great piece of work of its time, then we can just take our critical hat off, if you like, for a while and just enjoy the beauty of it for its own sake and not let political correctness interfere too much with our enjoyment of the piece. It's like enjoying a piece of Buddhist art or art from ancient Greece, you don't have to share the same philosophy or religious beliefs or acceptance of myth to appreciate the beauty of what has been created and I think one can do that.
With drama it's more contentious because audiences I think can turn off a play if the, say, gender politics is just so out of kilter with what we are - expect today that people can rather resent being presented with something that is just a little bit too out of the way, too old‑fashioned.
G: It's roughly perhaps for those who are a little bit rusty on In Your Garden that the narrative line is basically three children grow up together, two marry, the man goes off to sea and he's gone for a very long time and when he comes back he realises that his wife whom he still loves very deeply has married the other chap -
G: - and he decides never to let her - well, that he'll hide himself from her because he can see how happy she is. So it's an extraordinary scenario. In a sense it's an inversion of Odicious. Odicious is gone for 20 years and he comes back to find Penelope steadily weaving at her loom and patiently waiting. But interestingly In Your Garden is just rich in that deeper subjects and illusion, isn't it?
J: Yes, I suppose really the only really gripping part of the story that we do cling to is the fact that Enoch denies himself the joy of reuniting with his family. He chooses the harder path of I won't reveal myself, they're all so happy as they are. If I step back into their lives it'll ruin everything so I will withdraw, I will live alone and die in private. That's a huge ethical decision, if you like, and that's the part that touches us, the rest about shipwreck and desert islands and childhood romance, that - we can let all that go, but I think the nub of it is his decision to sacrifice himself for the family's happiness.
G: And in that sense it made me think about some really quite profound enduring human stories. It's almost a Joseph Campbell myth in a way, people who are grappling with quite existential stories -
G: - and for somebody who is working in the theatre or working to produce something you are tapping into quite deep veins of human experience there, aren't you?
J: I think so. I think you don't re-tackle any work of art unless it does that for you otherwise it's just a bit of trivia. You look for that in every piece you approach, is there a truthful connection with experience and can we believe people would do that, would feel that, and if that's not there then the piece is shallow. And even some of the - and people often knock Pacini, for instance, as being too chocolate boxey and unreal. I think his three great - well to me, my life's three great operas are Tosca, Boheme and -
J: This one.
G: Butterfly, Madame Butterfly.
J: Butterfly, yeah, of course. Those three, they are true stories, those things really happened, not necessarily those particular characters but those things did happen and are happening all around us. So, and his music really taps into the humanity and it tells you how to perform those pieces, even to the sense if you listen you can hear, it takes someone that long to cross from there to there and to come down those stairs or whatever, it's all in the music, he's a great dramatist and I find Pacini's operas totally compelling, totally real. About to - I did a production of Butterfly 10 years ago for what was called Oz Opera, that's the touring regional company, and I'm going to do it again next year, this time with largely a cast of Asian singers which I think's very good. It's appropriate to the piece, we get a little bit anxious now about white ladies making up - giving themselves Japanese makeup, it's a little bit distasteful maybe, so to have Asian singers will be very good. And to send them out throughout regional Australia is also a very good message, I think, we're sending around the country about our cultural diversity and the place of - artists of mixed ethnicity working in our main-stage companies.
So, and the other thing that I like about it is, that it's a small company and I have the those singers all the time from day one. They won't be flying in from <inaudible 20:20> the day before, so I look forward to re-staging that and taking that out on tour over the next two years they'll be touring that around the country.
G: But I think what you're really touching on there is that the stories that resonate with us most deeply are the same stories again and again, it's that long lineage from Sophocles to Shakespeare, if you will -
G: - of stories and perhaps In Your Garden does sit there of things that are about the deepest human impulses and so the connection you make with the audience on those stories can be a very powerful one.
J: Yes. Someone said there are only seven stories in the world. I've never actually examined that thesis but there's something in what you say about there are certain great decisions to be made or sacrifices to be made or things to aspire to that you find in fairy stories, you find in the ancient myths and you find in modern retellings of those stories. But they're very - they can touch us very profoundly, no matter how ancient they are.
G: Alex, when he introduced In Your Garden yesterday made reference to the long list of other productions and takes on the idea. One that he didn't mention was that the famous Marilyn Monroe film that never made it, Something's Got to Give, Marilyn was to play Ellen Arden who was a photographer who was shipwrecked. Like you really - what a distance from Tennyson and the rockstar poet <inaudible 21:45> to Marilyn Monroe, it's quite remarkable.
I did wonder as I watched you and Simon on stage, how you were prepared and worked with each other for this piece and if you could talk me through how you developed the work for performance.
J: Well whenever I work with musicians I have to confess first up, I can't read music. And that's - I get away with it. I remember when I did Peter and the Wolf with <inaudible 22:11>. I said most dramas tell you front up, I can't read music. He said nobody can read music. He said Pavarotti couldn't read music. I said you're kidding me, he said no, he said I did a recording myself, Itzhak Perlman and Pavarotti, and Pavarotti said, now don't you bloody tricks you musicians, you. So I'm a bit like Pavarotti, I say to the maestro I can't read music, but I've studied - I've listened to it again and again and I know what I want to do with it but I trust my collaboration with the conductor will be strong enough that we can work together. And I've been lucky enough on two out of three occasions to have a sympathetic conductor. The other one I fought with night and day, so not a good experience. But that same conductor also fought with the tenor and the soprano as well, maybe it was his problem not mine.
So you can get away - I do wish that I'd studied music and - theory and that I had learned to read music. It's never too late, I know, but I'm a bit lazy I suppose now and I think if I can get away with it I'll get away with it.
G: So when you work with Simon on a piece like this -
J: Well -
G: - how do you work out the balance, what happens?
J: Sure. I suppose ideally I'd be there with the score on a stand and I'd be reading the score and I'd know where to come in exactly with the words. In our case I just have to look at Simon and he gives me a little wink and I come with the words. I had the same with Itzhak, he goes I said I can't read the music. He said okay, I'll bring you in, I'll give you a cue every time. Well a cue could range from that to that. And once it was a great big grin, I said, was that a cue? He said no, I'm just enjoying myself.
G: It is - it's interesting that as an idea that you have almost no element other than your voice and the piano, and even the piano and the Richard Strauss score is - it's waves and intervals of music, it's not a score as such in that it comes and goes for long periods of time.
J: Yeah, it's very peculiar. Maybe it's because he was reading it in German, he had a different impression of what it was all about, but there's sometimes when the music actually almost swamps the words, we've got to really fight each other about being heard. Other times it comes in little dribs and drabs and in unlikely places and you think well here's a good piece to put music and he doesn't do it. So I just wonder, the choices he made to me are very odd ones, some of them works very well but other times I think, now why isn't there music there or why is that bit there, it needn't be. We'll never know.
G: Yes, as an actor, though, as somebody whose business is words and movement, is the music like another character when you're on stage?
J: Oh, in this case, yes, but I also enjoy working with musicians when we're - they are quite separate entities. I'm doing some work with the Tinalley string quartet reading Beethoven's letters, and so there the words and music are totally separate, but it's such a joy to sit among a strong quartet, to sit with them on the - in the space and have that music so close you can hear the woodiness of the instruments, you can watch the fingering of the individuals and that's a real privilege to be right in amongst the music. But the words are quite separate but I feel that I am very much a part, and the Beethoven letters are so moving and so graphic that they are - and the music expresses what he was feeling so strongly that I feel that I am very much a part of the team with them.
G: Are you also watching the musicians apply their trade in a sense as a craftsman who -
G: - is very close.
J: Oh, it's wonderful, because when you listen to music you hear an orchestra playing and you hear all these wonderful sounds. You don't realise the expertise that goes into every single note, that when you watch musicians up close and watch the string players, the technique they have to apply. And then the conductor who has to pull it altogether and know exactly the balance and when to bring in people and when - and tempe and all of that, it's quite amazing.
I work with Simone Young quite a lot and she has the most beautiful hands I've ever seen, they're so expressive and to watch what the left hand's doing as opposed to the right hand, it's an extraordinary operation, and what that brain is doing to keep all of that together and still have the emotion come through so strongly, so it's not just a cerebral thing, it's all about emotional expression.
G: Yes, I'm intrigued by that notion of one craftsman watching another craftsman at work -
G: - in a slightly different sphere but thinking of the technique and the precision that goes in underneath as it were.
J: Yes, well whenever I watch musicians or singers or dancers even, I do think oh we actors are a lazy lot really, we tend to slop around and get things more or less correct because it's more lifelike to be a little bit sloppy, a bit casual but really if we applied that technique that singers and musicians do we could lift our game quite a lot.
G: Well -
J: So I often tell my actors, go and watch the musicians, go and watch the ballet dancers and really see how much a technique can be applied and what it does for your work.
G: Well we were watching last night the <inaudible 27:50> quartet who performed what I thought was warped speed intensity and were completely exhausted at the end of the playing their Tchaikovsky and the physical effort as well as the huge precision and skill was quite marvellous. You and Simon Tedeschi have also been working on Bright Star and that's a piece that draws connections between John Keats and Franz Schubert, two of the great figures among the romantics. Talk to me about that idea and how it came about.
J: Well Simon and I have so much enjoyed doing In Our Garden, we said let's do something else together. So I had a think about it and I've always liked Keats and I like - I think Keats is wonderful to recite and it's lovely to listen to. And very simple, very accessible, I think. So I thought why don't we put Keats with somebody and then I said well Schubert's the obvious contender because they were near contemporaries, they both died young, Keats was 25, Schubert was 32, they had both been in love with a woman they couldn't marry because they were broke and were not of sufficient social standing. So their lives - they run parallel, they never knew each other or met each other but I thought let's put them together and see what comes out of it. So we've devised a program called Bright Star and I will be reading Keats' poems, tracing his biography and Simon will tell us a bit about a biography of Schubert and play pieces by him. So it'll be a nicely balanced program, I think, and a tribute to two of the brightest stars of the romantic movement.
G: Isn't it an extraordinary thing to think that that richness from both of them came at such a young age and Keats is one of my great all time favourite poets, and to think that at 25 he was dead.
J: He didn't start writing poetry until he was 18.
J: So it's - or even older I think, 19. So he wrote poetry for a very short period but my gosh the output and the quality is astonishing.
G: What's the significance of the romantics for you as a movement. There's this great upwelling of emotion as opposed to the strictness of the frameworks that came before.
J: Yes they were rebelling against, I suppose, the classical rigour of the baroque. And so you get a lot of sloppy stuff, of course, but also the greatness - great music and the painters too, people like Turner, for instance, took the same approach to the wonders of nature, the vastness of nature, the force of nature so you get a lot of huge romantic paintings, canvases that often reflect again back to medieval times and romantic stories, but full of emotion and full of spectacle. And I think the music echoes that.
G: I guess I'm thinking of that in terms of our earlier conversation about Tennyson, because there's the great waves of emotion that come from the romantics then turn into almost high melodrama -
J: They do.
G: - in the Victorians.
J: They often overlap, and when it's great that's fine, you can get away with it. Sometimes it's substandard and then it's just melodrama. But the word melodrama itself's not a <inaudible 31:11> it just simply means drama with music. We're using the melodramatic rather as a <inaudible 31:17> these days. But the poets of the period, they all share that same quest for vastness and greatness which of course also led to things like the rise of Napoleon and other dictators who felt the call of greatness, the call of conquest, et cetera, and they were rather romanticised in the beginning until people started to see through what was going on and people like Beethoven withdrew his support from Napoleon and others started to withdraw their admiration of these people who were become tyrannical. But it was the same surge, if you like, of emotion and ambition that produced Beethoven, produced Napoleon as well.
G: The great man strives the stage.
J: The great man, exactly, yes, the hero, the man of his age.
J: Dangerous - there are a few of them strutting the world stage right now and I think we can keep our eye on them.
G: Absolutely. I am going to turn over to you for your questions in a few minutes. I've got a couple more questions I'd like to ask John but if you are thinking that you're longing to have this opportunity to ask John Bell something penetrating and insightful it's about to arrive. The moment is almost here. John, at this point in your career, what are you looking for in a project?
J: Oh, something for an old man to do. You find there are less and lessor roles available. Young ones coming through who are - have all that energy and ambition who are reshaping the nature of theatre as we know it. So you've got to move aside a bit and let them muscle in and also encourage new talent to come to the fore. I do enjoy now mentoring people, teaching and setting up opportunities for younger artists. I've started a foundation in Sydney, well Central Coast where I live most of the time, to raise money for young artists across the board, whether it's pop singers, opera singers, filmmakers, painters, whatever, but we try to raise money to support people from fairly disadvantaged backgrounds to whom a couple of thousand dollars can make a big difference and start them on a project. So I enjoy doing that as well.
G: What fruit has your mentoring work borne? Who do you look at with delight that you're able to help them along in their career?
J: Oh just in most recent times we have a girl who has recently played a leading role with the Melbourne Theatre Company. A couple of classical musicians are now studying overseas, a couple of others have got into training schools in Western Australia and Sydney. One boy painted me for the Archer board and got exhibited so that was nice for him. So yes I can see them coming through. And another young cinematographer won the best cinematographer in the recent Flicker Festival in Sydney. So they're only 18, 20, so God knows in 10 years' time where they'll be.
G: But a fabulous feeling -
J: Excited to watch happening.
G: - but a marvellous feeling for you to think -
J: It's good.
G: - this next <inaudible 34:30> generation is able to be connected. What stretches you now, are there things that you still find really challenging?
J: Oh old age is challenging. I want to travel more while one still can, so heading off to - on safari in a few weeks' time would be nice. I suppose I would like to tackle a couple more operatic pieces but I'd have to find the right conditions to do them in. I will never run another theatre company, I've done that for 50 years and that's enough of that. So it really is, I suppose, trying to find or create little vehicles like this one with Simon that are just fun to do and it's fun to go to a music festival for a few days and see parts of the country that I wouldn't see otherwise. So it's really a matter of just putting the little things together that are exciting and interesting which I have no responsibility except just to be there.
G: I might share with you all that the very first real play I ever say was John playing Lear many long years ago and I was in Year 12 at the time. My friend's mother said, come on, we've got to go and take you girls to something really proper and well done, so off we went and you were a young Lear, a young angry raging Lear and I recall the set being almost post-apocalyptic fall of Berlin setting and then to see you play Lear only a few years ago and to see a melancholy older gentler confused Lear, it made me think in fascinating ways about the arc of an actor's career and how that changes the roles that you can inhabit. Everything can be fresh no matter where you are.
J: Yes I think when you're a young actor, a role like Hamlet or Macbeth is a character role, if you like, when you get to a certain age it becomes just you. Expression yourself through the words, yes.
G: Well look let's turn over to you. Now we've got two microphones, and I would just ask you if you've got a question to just pop your hand up so that we can get one of the roving microphones to you. And yes we'll go to you there in the middle and I think there's another one over here.
A: John, I wonder whether you'd like to reflect on your times at the Nimrod Theatre, what you envisage for it when you started it, how it went, its successes, its <inaudible 37:01>, its failures, any really fond memories you have of those days.
J: Let - that's a rather big question. In brief, I suppose what we started to set out to create was a platform for new Australian drama, there wasn't much being done around 1970. It was largely overseas players and classics, so we wanted to create a space for new Australian writing, people like David Williamson and John Romerald, Jack Hibbert. Alex Busso started to write plays for us.
And then once that was established we wanted to - or I wanted to explore a way of playing Shakespeare in Australia because when I came back from England I felt that the five years I'd spent there with the Royal Shakespeare Company I thought I can't only apply any of this back home, the way the English were speaking and acting and the focus of their productions was something that was theirs and I thought the Australia I come - I have come back to is not like that. It had changed quite a lot, it seemed more materialistic, more hedonistic, there's the mineral boom was in full swing, it was a different culture and I thought if we're going to make Shakespeare or the classics work here we've got to find a way of playing them that is our own, that relates to us and not try to imitate an English model. No matter how good it is, it just isn't our model. So let's try to find ways of relating the plays to our own environment, what are the issues that are most pertinent there that we can recognise and grapple with, let's try and find ways of speaking Shakespeare that are our own, whatever various accents people have in this country, let's not deny those, let's use them, let's put them into design costume set, music et cetera that bring the plays into focus.
People say is Shakespeare still relevant, well it's always relevant, our job is to point out the relevance and say this is why it's relevant. These are the issues of, say, racism or ambition or revenge or sexual harassment or whatever and say these are hot topics, these are still potent, let's explore them. So that was the idea. It sometimes works, it sometimes didn't, there were hits and misses, but however I ran that company for 14 years and by the end of it I had had enough of it, I'll never run another theatre company, that's been a long time. Someone with the idea of Bell Shakespeare and that was the next 25 years went by in a flash.
G: Do you think - just on that, John, is it important to try to bring an Australian resonance to the work that you do? When we saw you yesterday with this Victorian melodrama that's quintessentially English with the hazelnut woods and the mill and so on and so forth?
J: No, you can't, there are some things you shouldn't try to impose. For instance, you can't really do Tennessee Williams with an Australian accent, for instance.
J: Or relocate it in <inaudible 40:07> or whatever, it just wouldn't work, you've got to try and -
J: That's a very Australian thing. No, you've got to respect the context, but other classics are so universal that they go beyond locality and you can relocate them in time and place, I think, very effectively and bring them back in a way that is fresh and audience say, oh, I haven't seen that play before. It's - you shake off the cobwebs, if you like.
J: Not part of the play but just the accretions over the years that have clung to it.
G: And you're right about the accretions, that's - I was interested to harken back to your discussion on productions of opera that won't go rolling on without your intervention. Accretions are the risk there, aren't they?
J: They are, yes.
G: Yeah, things that blur the original vision.
J: That's right, and I think opera audiences are the most conservative, they want to see the opera in its proper time and place and you can't meddle around with that. Well I think you can, I think you can really - if you've got the right reason and the right vision you can shift an opera into a different time and place and make it just as effective - well more effective for an audience today than something that seems remote and fairytale likened and not - it doesn't <inaudible 41:29> anymore.
G: Yeah, Diana?
A: I have about 10 questions but I'll narrow it down to one. I'm curious about why the work of Stanislavski in opera is so little known about, much less understood and why we can't look to his work in his later career rather than the - often people think of Stanislavski related to method acting but that's not Stanislavski, that's Lee Strasburg, et cetera, but Stanislavski spent a lot of his later career in opera and his work was incredibly organic, just like yours. Do you have a sense of why we don't think about Stanislavski and opera in current professional practice and pedagogy?
G: It's a very <inaudible 42:17> question, Diana, and I thank you for it.
J: When you say Stanislavski and opera, I'm not quite sure -
A: Well he was an opera singer, which most people wouldn't know if we didn't mention it, and quite a strongly - well trained musician, and a lot of his directorial work later in his career was on <inaudible 42:39>, it was on opera but it's - very few people know that and much - I have not heard of it being taught in an operatic course for starters, much less integrated into a process, a performance process.
G: If I understand what you're getting at there, really it's this notion that what we might think of broadly as method is not so familiar on the opera stage.
A: It's not method acting, it's -
G: No, I understand what you're saying but the idea that you can - that opera with all of its perceived rigidity and straightness could be challenged by other applications.
A: Yeah, it's not method acting, that's a whole other - that's from New York, totally different thing, it's - I only mentioned that because it's sometimes confused with that but his work in opera was incredibly organic, was very much about the marriage of text and music. And I'm just really curious why we don't know more about that.
J: I think probably the real reason is that not enough attention is given to the acting part of opera. Most opera directors and impresarios and <inaudible 43:41> it's all about the music and the singing and the voices. The acting, we can - it's incidental and they would prefer a great singer who can't act to one who can act and sing reasonably well. It's all about the voice. And so I don't think there's very much goes into training opera singers to act, there's a little bit maybe, odd acting classes here and there but it's not really taken all that seriously. And of course Stanislavski would rehearse for months and months and so it's an in-depth examination that no opera company would ever be - invest in. That's why they, I guess they ask people like me into direct opera because I come from a theatre background and I'm interested in the acting side of it, and they think oh well here's somebody who can fix it. Well I can't fix it in two or three rehearsals and I can't fix it if the singer flies in the day before. Ideally I'd say okay I will do it, just give me, say, at least six weeks' rehearsal with all the singers available all the time and then we can start talking about Stanislavski and really getting into character and full on motivation and all those things and we'll make it more real and more intense than you've ever seen it before. But nobody would - I think would take that on, that's just too big an ask, I suspect. There's maybe an opera company somewhere in the world who'd do that but it -
G: Yeah, I -
J: - but generally - I'm sorry.
J: It seems to be a universal thing about the singers only arrive at the last minute and perform, and one reason is they don't get paid for rehearsal, they only get paid per performance and so if I can do a dig here and then fly off to <inaudible 45:19> tomorrow and then do another one in Stuttgart the next day, fine, that's what - while my voice lasts. There are certain professional priorities there, I'm afraid, but yes I would long to have the opportunity to have a full-time opera company, a permanent company, not just people flying in and out but people who would work together over a long period and build up a culture that made the acting and the singing absolutely symbiotic.
G: And I do wonder whether that's perhaps one of the barriers towards wider acceptance in the general theatre going public of opera is that it's so predicated on the voice being the primary vehicle and the acting being second in the rungs. But now, next to you.
A: John, you mentioned to smaller productions, Beethoven's letters and Bright Star. Will we be seeing those shortly in Canberra?
G: She says optimistically.
J: I hope so, yes. Simon has a manager who arranges his tours and so she'll be looking for opportunities for us to trot it around. I think we've got about a dozen bookings next year for it already so, but I'm sure she'll be thinking of that, definitely.
G: Yeah, and we'll just go to you here.
A: Hello, John, I'd first of all like to say how much I appreciated you coming and helping me with the children I was teaching in Western Sydney, just at the beginning of the Bell Shakespeare Company and you and Anna came and brought actors for nothing and helped those kids understand Shakespeare. But the question I really want to ask you is, out of all the characters in Shakespeare that you've played, I'd love to know which one was personally the most valuable for you in your own life, if you can?
J: Oh, the most valuable. That's interesting. Look, I suppose -
A: For your own development, I suppose.
A: That may be rather a personal question but you'll know how to deal with it.
J: No, it's all right. I think funnily enough I've been more successful in the characters that are nothing like me, like Richard III for instance, we're nothing alike at all but he's such a joy to play. It's a bit like people love playing gangsters because you let all your other - your worst side out and you have fun playing somebody who's nothing like you, it's just a game, it's a pretence, and Richard III is very like that, it's a wonderfully constructed character. But I suppose for personal reflection, I guess Hamlet's the one you get coming back to because you can measure yourself against Hamlet every 10 years or so and say how am I doing in terms of reconciling myself to fate, to destiny, to challenges, to moral decisions and complex dilemmas. I guess Hamlet appeals to young people because he's in that stage of adolescent confusion about - to do with his mother and his dead father and sibling rivalry with <inaudible 48:44>, all that sort of stuff. And as you get older it becomes about other things. It becomes more reflective and looking at the larger picture, not just yourself. So I think one measures oneself against Hamlet quite a lot and you can see it played by people of various ages and it will mean different things.
It's odd because when the play starts he's young Hamlet, he's still at university, so he's about 18 or something. But in the last scene, the grave digger says, I've been grave digger here for 30 years - it was when young Hamlet was born, so he's 30 by the end of the play. So what happened, has he got that much older in the course of the play? Not really, it's like he's young when he starts, he's more mature when the play finishes, that's what Shakespeare's saying, I think, that he's grown up over the course of the play. The way Juliet grows up from being a 14 year old girl to a mature woman in the space of four days, she becomes this extraordinary heroine. So Shakespeare, he's good at playing that double time thing of making the play speed along and yet at the same time people grow up incredibly fast within it.
G: Okay, up the back.
A: Hello, I would like to congratulate you for your fantastic career. I have been attending plays and I have seen the opera, Toska, the - you're staging and I would says both your acting career and the staging of operas is absolutely remarkable. But I would like to know what is your favourite contemporary play writer, because I have seen in Australia different play writers from Williamson and others and I don't know, I think sometimes play writers have lost their way on how to convey their - your values, your - the principles, et cetera. I think I would like to know your opinion on that.
J: Thank you. Well look, there's quite a wide range, I suppose, of writers working in different kinds of theatre. I think not strictly contemporary but I suppose over the last - well this last generation I would say that Arthur Miller has been one of the greatest of American writers. The depth in which he explores the American family and relationships and the American dream, if you like, you can come back to Arthur Miller again and again and find such richness of observation in his plays. Someone like Beckett and Pinter explore the absurd, the mystifying, the worrying kind of abstractions that invade us and our thinking. Someone like Tom Stoppard is wonderfully witty and creative, he carries on that tradition of, say, Sheridon or Noel Coward in terms of playing with language and very clever ideas. And Carol Churchill for instance is a great feminist writer, I think, and explores a lot of really important issues from the women's perspective which hasn't been done too often in the past. So that'd be just a few of the writers I come back to again and again and like seeing their work, but there are others. Excuse me for those I've forgotten but there are others as well, of course.
G: John, in a modern Australian context, are there people whose work you like here and now or you are particularly intrigued by?
J: Yes there are a number.
G: Is this -
J: Valentine, for instance, is doing some really interesting work. David Williamson's probably still one of our most popular writers and can connect back to very current issues. And he's written a new play about Isaac Newton which is quite a departure for him, and I'm looking forward - I read a couple of drafts of it and I'll be seeing that in Brisbane shortly. So he's exploring quite a new territory but look it's hard for writers in Australia because there's nowhere to develop their work. They submit their plays and if they get on they get a showing but what we need is more workshopping and exploration of plays to bring them to a point where they can be performed and not just a hit and miss opportunity.
G: So I think our last question is just down here.
A: John, thanks for all you've done over so many years. It's interesting you mentioned Hamlet because we have this wonderful opera that Neil <inaudible 53:38> put on is extraordinary seeing the combination of music and drama that I think is going to - which I think will last forever. But secondly, I wonder if you feel there's a role for you to play in some of the social issues that are - like immigration, Aboriginal disadvantage that you may play a role in some way or other by bringing forward plays of <inaudible 54:05> or some other way.
J: Yes, I think that is being done quite a lot at the moment. I'm very interested to see, looking at the programs, of the current, say, Bellvoire, STC, MTC Productions, there's much more focus now on those issues. Bellvoire has done several plays recently on migration - immigrant issues, much more diverse casting in terms of ethnicity than we've seen in the past. STC is grappling with some of those problems as well. I think theatre companies on the whole are feeling the pressure for more female writers, female directors, female artistic directors and much more, if you like, colour blind, gender blind casting in plays. Again, some of those are better informed than others. That doesn't always work, it's a nice principle to work from but you've got to be fairly discrete as to how you handle it otherwise it can misfire. But I do think on the whole that theatre companies are becoming much more devoted to exploring those issues, whether it's from using old plays or creating new ones. And I think that is very much part of theatre's function. And hasn't been always in Australia, we've started to pick it up from what we've been seeing in Britain, particularly, I think but there's been a lot of emphasis on those issues for quite some time, but I think we're starting to catch up. And certainly all our young writers that I come across are very involved with those issues, they're not writing stuff that's just entertainment, they're really digging into stuff that they feel quite passionate about and that's a very good sign, good hope for the future.
G: A wonderful conversation with John Bell. Thank you very much indeed for your part in it. John, thank you so much for being with us.
J: Great talking to you, thank you.
K: Well we've certainly been on a wonderful journey this morning from the weirdness of the opera world through the word music of Keats and Tennyson and right up to the role of theatre in contemporary Australia. The rest of your journey is about to begin. If you'd like to go up to the foyer we do have some of John's books for sale in the bookshop and John's agreed to sign them for a little while. And if you are staying for the concert that begins at 11:00 it will be in the foyer too and it will take you on another journey through the parliamentary triangles, so have a wonderful day and thank you for coming this morning and please thank John and Genevieve.
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