THE ART OF BEING CONNED.

THE ART OF BEING CONNED.

John Bell can’t ever remember being ripped off. When I spoke to the artistic Director of the Bell Shakespeare Company he was knee deep directing a play about crooks.

The Alchemist by Ben Johnson is a farce, which opens with the line “Do thy worst I fart at thee.” The play rings true today, with the inexhaustible supply of human dishonesty and gullibility around at the moment.
“All these people going down the drain. There is always some new scam. In the last couple of weeks it was Madoff in New York,” he said.
But John Bell says he himself has never fallen victim to any scams.
It shows. Having a nose for financial pitfalls has helped him mould a company which is both hugely artistically successful and last year made an eight hundred thousand dollar surplus.
The company is performing literally in every corner of Australia.
Take Tennant Creek High School, located half way between Darwin and Alice Springs. A benefactor sent the Bell Shakespeare’s education program to the school to inspire Aboriginal children about the works of Shakespeare.
In 2007 the students studied Romeo and Juliet.
“They can relate to teenage boys and girls wanting to be together but can't be … for family reason,” said Education Manager Linda Lorenza.
“So many teenagers experience unrequited love, where there is a restriction on being with a person you are attracted to,” she said.
They ended the two-week workshop with a performance.
“The local police broke up the staged riot in Verona and the local bush tucker man played the Friar who gave Juliet the sleeping potion,” she said.
In 2008 when they returned to the school to stage A Midsummer Night’s Dream, comparisons were made to characters in the Dreamtime.
What did they learn?
“The students started adopting Shakespearean insults. A favourite was you boiled brain maggot pie and sheet biting barnacle,” she said.
More importantly they became enthusiastic about learning and story telling.
Some began to play with language.
“So far the judgement is that attendance at school has improved. Teachers would tell me that a child is coming every day that wasn’t.”
John Bell hasn’t performed on a dusty plain in Tennant Creek as far as I am aware. But the simplicity of that production is replicated when the Bell Shakespeare Company performs in the big cities. He scorns the move to big budget productions for musicals and also at times Opera. He feels audiences are becoming spoiled.
“The productions are becoming more elaborate to compete with cinema, and the Opera feels it has to stage elaborate productions because they are charging big bucks, ” he said.
Not surprisingly John Bell models his productions on those in the time of Shakespeare, which were performed on a bare stage. The Alchemist is staged with extreme simplicity.
“I didn’t want a box set. It’s not in period costume. It looks more like a sit com. All we’ve got is an empty space, and a couple of clothes racks,” he said. “It gives a sense of improvisation, of actors making it up on the run. The whole emphasis is on the actors and their impersonations.”
As the 20th anniversary of the Bell Shakespeare approaches, more and more the company is moving away from the Bard.
“We have now staged all the classics, the only ones left are too much of a commercial risk, so to keep things fresh we have been looking at plays from the era of Shakespeare,” he said.
Ben Johnson was a contemporary of Shakespeare. He wrote three satirical plays - The Alchemist, Volpone and Bartholomew Fair. John Bell says his other works are painfully formal, but his comedies deserve a revival.
The Company is not entirely abandoning Shakespeare. It’s major regional touring production this is The Taming of the Shrew – being cast entirely with women.
“Marion Potts (the director) has cast it to take a different slant on the sexual politics in the play,” John Bell said.
And Bell Shakespeare is even dipping its toe into the water of commissioning new plays. Naturally enough they have a Shakespearean flavour. The poem by Shakespeare called Venus and Adonis has inspired a musical cabaret which has toured Australia and will make its New Zealand debut in Auckland in March.
John Bell was recently awarded an AO in recognition of his services to the artists and at the age of 68 is showing no signs of slowing down.
When asked when he might like to retire, he quips “Another ten years.”

David Spicer

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