The worn-out formula of Bell Shakespeare

The stage was alive with fun furs, and the play script came from the same garage sale. John Bell’s Bell Shakespeare celebrated its twentieth anniversary with a $15 souvenir program (featuring John Bell), and a production of King Lear (starring John Bell).

The program was the usual rip-off of advertisements, fluff, cast list, biographies and some boring bits from university textbooks. BHP Billiton’s full-page ad set the fawning tone with a photo of John Bell superimposed with a quote from Ben Jonson: “He was not of an age, but for all time.” I had the uneasy feeling John Bell would agree. There was also an essay by John Bell AO and National Trust Living Treasure: “Lear’s ‘madness’ is liberating. He has always denied the female (flexible and forgiving) part of himself. He refuses to weep, suppressing and imploding his natural instincts. This repression turns into a disgust of all things feminine.” Oh Lord.

Bell Shakespeare needs rethinking or putting out of its misery. It is chained to an unproductive and barren formula that needs throwing away and the introduction of a fresh approach—which is probably impossible. As with much of the Australian arts the truth is not told about how bad this company really is, and suggestions of problems invite an angry defence of the indefensible by Bell’s many admirers. It needs taking apart and reassembling, from the top. The problems with this company are important, not only because of their appetite for public moneys but more so for their role in taking these ersatz productions of Shakespeare into schools.

This is the third time Lear has been attacked by Bell. His performance was pedestrian, and the production was generally dull.

The setting for Bell Shakespeare productions is always the same. The time and place are somewhere in the early 1970s onstage at the Nimrod Theatre when John Bell was youngish.

Shakespeare’s King Lear begins with a short scene between the Earls of Kent and Gloucester and the latter’s bastard son Edmund. Edmund is a bloody thread of deceit and violence running through the play. He will have his legitimate brother disinherited, his father blinded and he will take his father’s title before being killed by his brother. The Lears are not the only ones with family problems. By cutting out the scene, as was done in this production, you diminish the roles of the three actors and especially that of Edmund.

Edmund was played by Tim Walter. He was a young villain who leapt energetically about the stage on his narrow legs. This was the problem. It was the sort of “Hey, look at me, this is fun, Shakespeare’s fun” puppy performance Bell Shakespeare actors turn on in every play. Audiences seem to like it, initially. It’s lively and entertaining but the crowd-pleasing is bought at the expense of maturity and a deeper interpretation of characterisations and the drama.

Bell Shakespeare searches for novelty and finds banality. The productions lack directorial maturity. In Shakespeare’s play the opening scene with glorious Gloucester and lowly bastard Edmund is a photographically precise illustration of what is to be reversed, by foul means, during the drama with father sinking and son rising. But this theatrical image was denied the actor, who only played a single note during the performance. At play’s end he was exactly the same person (allowing for a change of fun fur) as he had been at the beginning. We were denied the interest of seeing his evil profitably rewarded and seeing him growing in stature and worldly power. That the evil sisters Goneril and Regan are both murderously in love with him was inexplicable. What they are in love with is his strength and bloodily purchased power, but these elements of his character were absent from this production. The director, Marion Potts, even inserted some ill-fitting burlesque into Goneril’s lusty confronting of Edmund which raised titters and undermined the playwright’s plot making.

This production opened with a tableau of the principal characters in fun furs standing on a small raised revolve centre stage with a circlet of clear plastic hanging above their heads. They stood in a semicircle around a man with a longer fun fur. The placement deprived the audience of a fanfare (which would have been very non-Bell Shakespeare) and a courtly procession of characters onto the stage. It deprived Lear of the opportunity of displaying himself to the audience as a regal figure. Bell’s Lear lacked majesty and he needed all the help he could get. A fun fur longer than the others was not enough to give him kingly status. Bell’s Lear was King because he told us so, not because we saw it. In fact he looked every inch the CEO of a subsidised theatre corporation, not a barbaric monarch, not a monarch at all.

Lear looked like John Bell. There are continual references in the text to Lear’s white hair. John Bell had a fashionably shaved head with a stubbly beard. With his slim figure and expensive tonsure he was photo shoot talent for a Senior Citizens’ Valentino fashion advertisement, not royal Lear. Locked into this somewhat vain characterisation he was incapable of representing the physical breakdown of Lear as he encountered mishaps and madness. Give us a Lear with pot belly, grey hair, overgrown nose hair and bad breath. When Bell’s Lear died onstage at the end he looked exactly the same as he had at the beginning of the play.

Peter Carroll’s Fool was masterly. White-haired and old, he not only mirrored the King, at times this frail old thing seemed much more the King than Mr Bell.

Jane Montgomery Griffiths’s Goneril reminded me of a drama lecturer at a provincial university; it was something about the way she spread her knees when she sat down. Because another actress had left, Rachel Gordon stepped into the role of Regan and read from a script she carried about. Bree van Reyk played some music and there was a bank of instruments at one side of the stage where some of the cast wandered. One mimed (I hope) blowing his nose onto the ground as she played and actors centre stage talked. These typically silly Bell Shakespeare touches reveal a mistrust of their ability to play Shakespeare. They believe that the boring bits have to somehow be hidden in full view and the best way of doing so is by distracting the audience. Novelty is more important than substance. At all costs the audience must be entertained. You can imagine that after a school performance many students would be keen on studying drama, but it is hardly likely that any would rush to read the plays themselves—if they did they would likely be disappointed.

After interval we came back to find Poor Tom, Josh McConville, lying naked, except for a pair of makeup dirty designer underpants, on the stage. It was a comfort to see that Poor Tom, despite his poverty, madness and other deprivations, had obviously kept up his gym subscription. All around him the stage was littered with fun furs. The play resumed and Poor Tom, stepping over said fun furs, complained of being cold.

Director Marion Potts, who is the new Artistic Director of Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, seems to have a big problem with the English language. When stocks were referred to and carried on stage they turned out to be ropes. When the characters talked of swords and drew them out they were pocket knives. And, rather wonderfully, when the trumpet was thrice ordered to sound, each time a bell tinkled. “Sound, trumpet!” Tinkle. “Again!” Tinkle. “Again!” Tinkle—and on came Edgar dressed as a ninja.

Potts also had problems with Elizabethan theatre’s wonderful relish for blood. She took the easy way out and resorted to a theatre restaurant rendition served with a knowing giggle. As Regan was dying—“Sick! O, sick!”—Goneril’s smirking aside to the audience was, “If not, I’ll ne’er trust poison.” At least I think that’s what she said, and not the original, “I’ll ne’er trust medicine.” Whichever it was it got a laugh and killed the building horror.

Effective was the use of stage trickery when Gloucester’s (Bruce Myles) first eye was plucked out. There was a sudden blinding flash from a bright light aimed at the audience and then darkness. We all went “Ooooo”. I’m not sure what came next as I shielded my eyes waiting for the next flash after the second eye came out.

In the great storm scene, which was well choreographed and performed, Lear and the Fool turned round and round, as the centre stage revolve turned beneath them, in a stylised dance movement. Unfortunately Lear’s words, against the roaring storm, seemed not the voice of a wondrous actor filling the auditorium but rather had more to do with the action of an offstage technician turning up the volume control on the speakers.

Towards the end of the play Lear is reunited with his youngest daughter, Susan Prior, now Queen of France. Although Cordelia’s time on stage is short she imaginatively dominates the play. Again the character did not seem to change very much. The difference between the princess in Act I and the Queen of France in Act V was hardly visible. And here Lear was firmly pushed into last place by John Bell. After his wanderings and sufferings (he had mislaid his fun fur) the old king was re-dressed by Cordelia’s attendants. And once more an Australian audience was treated to the sight of John Bell in a white suit, bathed in clear bright light—but he’s not thirtyish any more. Hasn’t he had a surfeit of white suits in his career? Anyway, his acting at this point was singularly selfish. Embracing Cordelia in their reconciliation scene he positioned himself upstage so that the actress had to turn towards him, showing the audience the back of her head. Not the most generous of gestures.       

The climax was a sorry disappointment. The marvellous moment arrived when Lear should re-enter with the dead Cordelia in his arms. Perhaps it was workplace health and safety regulations, perhaps he didn’t want to dirty his white suit, but John Bell couldn’t manage it and Cordelia was carried on by others. And then the magnificent

Howl! howl! howl! O! you are men of stones:
Had I your tongues and eyes, I’d use them so
That heaven’s vault should crack. She’s gone for ever

was dribbled away in a lacklustre delivery.

In the last scene Bell’s Lear was strangely absent. Oh, he was certainly on stage, and he certainly talked, but he did not dominate, did not make the stage his own. When he finally died it was a soap bubble popping, a thing of little importance.

A Bell Shakespeare media release got it all wrong, again:

Set in a post-Christian world, the notion of a Godless or ethically rudderless society is at the centre of Marion Potts’ production. From the prosperity of the play’s beginning, the audience is taken on a journey into the moral vacuum that is left when a society breaks down. On stage are the apocalyptic consequences of betraying our own dignity and human worth.

In Australia we have an awful habit of taking these bits of pomposity at face value, and ignoring the bankrupt reality of our culture.

Outside it was just after 5 p.m. and darkening on this late autumn day. In Swanston Street, not far from the McDonald’s where someone was stabbed not long ago, a young man was being frisked by security people or police at the entrance to a bar. The signs of our coming winter are unmistakable. The world has changed and the old Nimrod bastardisations of Shakespeare are trite and demeaning. It’s time we did these things better.

Michael Connor is the editor of Quadrant Online.

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