N is for National
Bell Shakespeare is a truly NATIONAL theatre company. Every year the company tours live theatre to many corners of the nation that others never reach.

“One of the reasons I agreed to start the company was the fact that I come from the country,” says Bell Shakespeare founder John Bell. “We didn’t get much live theatre where I grew up [East Maitland]. So I always wanted to take theatre into regional Australia and give other country kids a chance to see it.”

O is for Othello
has a special place in John Bell’s heart because it was the first time he saw Laurence Olivier act on stage.

“Olivier was my acting idol since the age of fifteen and the biggest single influence on my love of Shakespeare and my decision to be an actor,” says Bell, who camped overnight on the cold English pavement to get tickets to see Oliver play Othello – four times!

[Read about Bell Shakespeare’s 2016 touring production of Othello here.]

P is for Primary Schools
Traditionally, the first brush with Shakespeare for many young people was in English lessons at secondary school. Since 1995 however, Bell Shakespeare has gradually been changing that. “Younger children weren’t getting much exposure to live theatre and we were aware that was a neglected sector of the community,” says John Bell. “So we extended our Actors At Work scheme into performances and workshops in PRIMARY schools.

“Kids love the stories and the characters, be it the fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or the three witches in Macbeth. They love dressing up in the costumes and playing these characters. It’s all about having fun of course but it does have a side benefit: Enjoying Shakespeare at that younger age makes it much less daunting when students later study and perform the plays in secondary school.”

[Read more about Bell Shakespeare’s work in primary schools here.]

Q is for Questions
One of the defining hallmarks of William Shakespeare’s writing was his ability to leave QUESTIONS in the minds of his audiences. Throughout every play, there are grey areas that demand answers. (Henry V: inspiring leader or manipulative warmonger? Is Hamlet ever really mad or just pretending?)

“Shakespeare wrote the plays so that they could be interpreted in different ways,” says John Bell. “The contradictions within characters like King Lear or Macbeth can make us sympathise and at the same time be horrified by them. Hamlet knocks off several people and yet, at the end, it is ‘Goodnight sweet prince’. It really is quite extraordinary.”

R is for Richard III
Asking John Bell to pick favourites from Bell Shakespeare’s past productions is like asking him to pick a favourite child. Yet Bell doesn’t hesitate when asked to name the character he’s enjoyed playing the most: RICHARD III.

“I’ve always liked playing the more grotesque roles,” says Bell. “With Richard, I think somehow I responded to the disguise, with the crippled arm. It takes you somewhere else because physicality transforms you.”

So why is Richard III so popular with audiences? “I think it is his unashamed delight in what he’s doing. It’s like a gangster movie. You know the gangster is going to get shot in the end and the cops are going to win. But you enjoy going for a ride with this villain who exists beyond our moral codes.”

S is for Supporters
If A is for actors then S is for SUPPORTERS, as to have one without the other is like Romeo without his Juliet or Rosalind sans Orlando. Bell Shakespeare benefits from a range of support from sponsors, philanthropists, government, and of course, its audiences.

“Our audiences are incredibly diverse,” says John Bell. “We travel far and wide and see people of all ages, and from very different backgrounds. About the only thing that unites them all is that our audiences are all discerning. Perhaps we should file them under ‘D’ instead?”

T is for Translations
In recent years, Australian theatre audiences have begun something of a love affair with the 17th Century French playwright Moliere and it shows no signs of abating. Bell Shakespeare has performed two modern TRANSLATIONS by Australian Justin Fleming and another is in the works for 2016.

“Moliere is the French equivalent to Shakespeare really,” says John Bell. “They weren’t that far apart historically. They were both interested in comedy and comedy stock characters and situations. ”

Read more about the 2016 production of Moliere’s The Literati (Justin Fleming’s translation of Les Femmes Savantes) here.

U is for United Kingdom
Years ago, it would have been unthinkable for an Australian theatre company to tour a Shakespeare play in the UNITED KINGDOM. But in 2006 Bell Shakespeare took the bold step of staging The Comedy Of Errors in the UK.

“We performed at Bath Festival and then did a season in Blackpool,” says John Bell. “The audiences were very enthusiastic and we had rave reviews. One said, ‘The Aussies beat us at cricket and now they’re beating us at Shakespeare’ and described our production as a warm ray of Aussie sunshine in a bleak English winter.”

V is for Volska
She’s played Lady Macbeth, Beatrice, Gertrude and Lady Capulet to name just a few. She’s directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Merchant Of Venice. And she’s been instrumental in the Bell Shakespeare story.

Anna VOLSKA is very much John Bell’s creative partner as well as life partner. “In 1990 we had two daughters growing up and I threw away a secure job to start up this new theatre company with nothing,” recalls Bell. “It was a pretty reckless thing to do but Anna encouraged me. She was totally supportive and enthusiastic. And right through to today, Anna is still my main support.”

W is for Why
The question John Bell gets asked more than any other is: WHY dedicate most of your working life to one playwright: Shakespeare?

Bell explains: “Shakespeare was a superb entertainer. His characterisation was astute. And he was versatile – Shakespeare could turn from comedy to tragedy to farce to historical chronicle to mystical fantasy, and carry them all off triumphantly.

“We also get to explore issues – how we live, how we should behave, why are we here – and view them through the filter of Shakespeare. So there’s that philosophical element, combined with his language being possibly the crowning glory of the English language.”

X is for X Factor
Theatre directors are always searching for the magic ingredient that will transform a good production into a great production. After six decades in theatre, John Bell has a few thoughts on where to look. “I think the X FACTOR is a really powerful actor using powerful language. With Shakespeare, I find the more cluttered you get – the more busy, the more effects you put on – the less you are in touch with that X factor.”

Y is for Yellow.
As in cross-gartered stockings. One of Shakespeare’s most-loved comic characters is Malvolio in Twelfth Night. The sour-faced puritan is tricked into parading around in a pair of YELLOW cross-gartered stockings to try to win the heart of Olivia.

John Bell remembers his cross-gartered experience of playing Malvolio, 20 years ago. “There was a story in the newspapers at the time of a Tory MP who was found dead, wearing ladies underwear with an orange in his mouth. This inspired my Malvolio and I stripped down so that my top half was a smart suit but below were boxer shorts, yellow stockings and high heels. It was a weird look. The top half was all very Tory and the bottom half was this sort of drag queen!”

Z is for Zeitgeist
One of the reasons Shakespeare’s plays endure is that they deal with themes that are just as relevant today as they were 400 years ago. This allows directors to present the plays and tap in to whatever the current ZEITGEIST may be.

“When you come to do a play you’ve got to think, ‘What is society’s current paranoia or dread or aspiration?’” explains John Bell. “You need to bring that to the fore without compromising the play or in any way distorting it.

“Our current production of Hamlet, for example, shines a spotlight on surveillance and the growing power governments have to monitor people. The director Damien Ryan has picked that up brilliantly.”

[See here for details and tickets about the current production of Hamlet.]

By Felicity McLean, author and freelance writer. @felicitymclean www.felicitymclean.com