Top End Shakespeare
12 Oct 2022
The course of true love never did run smooth, and the same can be said for Kevin Cosgrave’s love of Shakespeare. Though his connection with the company began with a distaste for a particular script edit on John Bell’s 2006 production of Romeo and Juliet, a fateful letter from John Bell befriended Kevin to the company and he has remained a friend and supporter of Bell Shakespeare ever since.
It was our great pleasure to have Kevin come from Melbourne to visit our new premises at Pier 2/3 last month and he kindly sat down with Lizzie Carr, Marketing and Development Executive, to share some more about his relationship with Bell Shakespeare, some of his favourite productions through the years, and why support for the arts in Australia is so important.
Lizzie: You have been supporting Bell Shakespeare for a long while. What was it that made you first feel it was important to support the company’s work?
Kevin: Sixteen years. Since 2006. I had—in year 11 or 12—an arrogant literature teacher who tried to ram Shakespeare down our throats. And I wasn’t vaguely interested in Shakespeare! I had no interest. I thought it was a waste of time.
Jump many years ahead, I started and ran a business consultancy in trade and government relations, the work was initially in Australia and then in Asia. My first client was one of the largest privately-owned companies in the world, and was still my client 35 years later, when I wound up the company. My counterpart, who was more senior to me, was in charge of Europe and the Americas and so on. So occasionally she would come out to Asia to help on a particular issue, and she would talk down to the locals, so often the way with some Americans, and give them what-for, and I thought, hey, you can't go about it like that! And somewhere, I recalled these words (and the only thing in the story I don’t know is where I first saw the words) and they were, “seal up the mouth of outrage.” Probably in the newspaper, I'm a newspaper-o-holic. And the words stayed with me.
So, I'd come back to Australia with these words, and the next thing, I must have looked it up in an encyclopaedia or somewhere, and I discover they’re in Romeo and Juliet. And now I have to find out where they are in Romeo and Juliet, but I’m not interested in Shakespeare! But my younger son, who sadly has since passed away—I rang him up and said, do you have a copy of Romeo and Juliet? And he said yes, and I said can I borrow it? So I borrowed it. And I finally come right to the end, where they’ve all carked it- Romeo’s dead, Juliet’s dead, they’ve all gone. And the Prince says to Montague:
Seal up the mouth of outrage for a while,
Till we can clear these ambiguities,
And know their spring, their head, their true descent,
And then I will be the general of your woes,
And lead you even to death. Mean time forbear,
And let mischance be slave to patience.
Kevin: So then I go to the show. Only the second time I’ve ever been to Shakespeare. And I’m waiting and waiting, and we’re getting to the end. And it ends. And there’s none of the words! When I got home, I rang up. I was really upset about this!
Lizzie: Was it a Bell Shakespeare production?
Lizzie: Was it Peter Evans’?
Kevin: No, no, it was John Bell’s! So this is the key, it was John’s in 2006. So I ring up. “Look, I’ve just come to the show, can I speak to someone?” And this lady says, “I’m the producer, can I help you?” So I spill the story. She says, “I’m terribly sorry.” But I was still upset! So I wrote a letter. I said, this is dreadful, how dare you do this, and so on.
And I get a six-page, hand-written letter from John Bell in response. Still one of my most precious possessions. And it very gently sets out- I’m sorry you’re upset Kevin, let me explain to you the role of the director, let me explain that Shakespeare’s plays often run well beyond two hours and a director has to decide on cuts, and so forth. And I’m knocked out. A hand-written letter!
And then I had a look at the program and there’s a bit about donations. And I can still remember, I thought, I’m going to write a cheque for five hundred bucks, these people must be good! That’s the story of how I become involved. True story.
Lizzie: So you were inspired by ‘seal up the mouth of outrage’.
Kevin: Peter (Evans) has marked it in his copy. And we were all just agreeing—Peter speaks about it often—think about the language of today. “Seal up the mouth of outrage.” Does it mean anything today? How relevant!
Lizzie: Given that you came to Shakespeare through Romeo and Juliet in this way, do you have a favourite Shakespeare play? Would you consider that your favourite?
Kevin: I think it comes down to performance, more so than the play. And I think the performance of Kate (Mulvany) in Richard 3 was… unbelievable. So much of that show was the riveting acting of Kate. The story is actually quite convoluted! But in a way, the story doesn’t really matter because you’re still just looking at her in awe all the time and her role. It doesn’t mean I don’t like the others—I like Henry IV and Henry V. I remember Toby Schmitz's brilliant performance in Much Ado About Nothing back in 2011. Hilarious! Wish we could see some more of him. I was talking today with Peter about how a director decides what environment, what year a play is set in, and so forth. And it was Henry V set in the wartime, you know with bombs coming down, do you remember that one? I really enjoyed that. The Merchant of Venice is always enjoyable because it’s so current. Obviously Romeo and Juliet for the reasons I have explained. What have we left out? Lear we haven’t done for years. I’ve seen everything since the last 16 years! Oh, and there was the one where John Bell loved throwing mud at people. What was that one?
Lizzie: Was it Titus Andronicus?
Kevin: Correct! Correct. That was fun. That was good. And of course, every play John acted in.
Lizzie: Kevin, you were an early advocate for the Infinite Space campaign that has culminated in Bell Shakespeare being able to have its own space here at Pier 2/3 to work in. What does it mean to you be able to come and see this in its fruition?
Kevin: I find it difficult to frame the right words. And I’m looking you right in the eye in saying that. Absolutely inspiring. We have to go back—I saw this, when it was just completely empty and I had a tour inside. And someone showed me a nail sticking out of the wall—not an ordinary one, about six inches long—and said, “we’re not even allowed to touch that.” Because of the heritage listing. So looking at the space now—this has been an incredible transformation.
At this point there is a knock on the door of the library. Peter Evans ducks in, he has an offsite engagement to get to.
Peter: We’ll be in touch Kevin. Thank you. It’s meant the world to us, your visit today.
Kevin: Marvellous. Now, I haven’t answered the question! About why John Bell omitted it, and he (points at Peter)- you omitted it from your production! You omitted it from your production (back to Lizzie) and he knows, that if he omits it from next year’s production, this building will be demolished by 91-year-old me and a bunch of young hoods. He knows. (Kevin chuckles) Thank you, Peter.
Lizzie: For people that are considering supporting Bell Shakespeare, or are already supporting Bell Shakespeare, is there more you like to share for our community of donors and readers and performers? And wisdom, or insights you’d like to offer about why the work of the company is important?
Kevin: Well, for obvious reasons you’ve heard, it doesn’t begin with a love of Shakespeare! It didn’t for me. It began with a total ignorance of Shakespeare. I’ve thought about it long before, but today has brought it more clearly into view for me. It’s more than putting on The Merchant of Venice or Henry IV or something. Bell Shakespeare is a very substantial and influential contributor to the arts in Australia.
Not widely known (including by me in the early days) is that Bell does much more than putting on a couple of Shakespeare favourites in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne every year. I much admire the smaller group of six actors called The Players, who travel to every one of the other states presenting and explaining other Shakespeare plays of excerpts, all original work, to primary and secondary school students, teachers and other regional audiences. There is actor training as well. As Peter so often says, Shakespeare should be for everyone- anyone should be able to access it and The Players make it accessible for all people in all parts of the country. I really believe in that program.
Sometimes I wonder whether I think I would prefer for my support to be anonymous or not, whether I want my name attached for it. And yet at other times, I look for whether my name is on the donor list on the program, because I hope other people will see it and go, “If he can do it, why aren’t I doing it too?”
To learn more about any aspect of Bell Shakespeare's work or to enquire about making a donation, please contact Lucy Boon, Annual Giving Manager, at email@example.com or on (02) 8220 7509.