By John Bell
Allen & Unwin, $39.99, pp 414
It was Alexandre Dumas who said that Shakespeare, after God, created the most. Reading this fascinating book, it is hard to disagree. The crucial point that John Bell brings out is the universality of Shakespeare, the remarkable quality of an ever-expanding set of meanings and interpretations. When a new version of Julius Caesar makes one think of the overthrow of Kevin Rudd by Julia Gillard (even down to the point that the plotters had not thought any further ahead than the assassination itself), something strange and wonderful is underway.
Bell, founder and currently artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare company, has been involved with nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays, as either actor or director (the little-known King John is one he has missed). On Shakespeare has autobiographical elements, but it is not Bell’s story; he knows when to make room on the stage. His long career allows him to see how Shakespeare productions have changed, from the sturdy costume-based productions of the Forties and Fifties to the experiments of the Seventies to modern innovations and adaptations.
Bell points out that Shakespeare’s Shakespeare would have been a different show altogether. Walking around the reconstructed Globe theatre, he is surprised to see how close the audience was to the stage and how little there was in the way of props and scenery. (Helpfully, Shakespeare often tells us in the play where the action is set, minimising the need for complicated introductions.) What separated Shakespeare from his peers was his ability to give each character a different voice — although it took him a few tries to get it right — and to offer bawdy comedy as well as high-minded drama. It turned the stage from a forum for speeches into a distilled piece of the world.
There is no escaping the historical English origins of Shakespeare, even with those plays set in ancient Rome or fair Verona. This has presented an ongoing problem for actors and directors: does Shakespeare have to have an English accent? Of course not, says Bell. Some of the most interesting versions of Macbeth, for example, appeared in Eastern Europe in the Soviet days, when theatre companies talked about the corrupt regimes hanging over them through a text set in a wintry, conspiracy-riddled Scotland.
Speaking of conspiracies, Bell is contemptuous of the theory that Shakespeare did not write the plays, or perhaps not all of them. There are plenty of accounts from people who watched him at work, and he received great respect and recognition in his own time, even from royalty. Certainly, he was quite ready to borrow from other people’s stories, and even contributed to some plays by other writers, but that was in line with the practice of the time. He was the right person in the right environment, but Bell also believes that Shakespeare’s experience as an actor underpins the depth of the writing. He knew that actors love to act, and aimed to give them the opportunity to really do so.
Bell himself was one of the first people to inject an Australian accent into Shakespeare, which seems natural today but was a brave move at the time. Shakespeare has even found its way into kabuki theatre and Kurosawa movies, where it seems quite at home. Bell accepts that there might be a need to alter some parts of the text where the meaning of a particular word has been lost, but believes it can be done without undermining the whole. The worst thing you can do with Shakespeare, he says, is be intimidated by it.
But the major roles are huge challenges, even for experienced actors such as Bell. When writing the book he was also playing Lear, and although it was his third time in the role he describes the latest attempt as ‘possibly the greatest failure of my career’. Well, maybe next time, John.
Bell gives a detailed examination of the main plays and a bit of their history. Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are the big crowd-pullers (Bell is always aware that you have to sell tickets, a view that Shakespeare would have endorsed). Antony and Cleopatra, Richard III and King Lear are wonderful works but can be difficult to stage. There are gems that are not performed as often, such as Pericles, Timon of Athens and Coriolanus, which have depth and drama. Some movie versions of Shakespeare work, some don’t; much depends on how much the director is willing to risk.
The book is at its best when focused on the stage. Bell’s attempts to imagine meetings with figures who loom large in the Shakespeare world, such as Ben Jonson, are not particularly successful. A chapter dealing with Shakespeare’s sonnets, while not uninteresting, seems out of place. In the end, the play’s the thing.
Despite attaining Living Treasure status, Bell shows no signs of slowing down, although he admits he is now past the age of being an acceptable Romeo. Bell Shakespeare, with a range of offshoots and projects, is making a conscious effort to get out of the traditional theatre space and into the broader community. There is, indeed, a sense of taking it back to a place not unlike where it started. Shakespeare, one feels, would probably approve.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.