Playhouse, March 11


If John Bell is anything to go by, basking in the words of William Shakespeare for 65 years is good for the soul. Exuding a calm generosity of spirit, he spent an hour conveying his singular love for this greatest of writers, artists and perhaps minds.

Bell was blessed with school teachers who fostered this obsession – which, in turn, prompted him to act. In his 20s he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, and soon after his return I first encountered him playing Hamlet in Nimrod’s striking “mirror” production, before discovering his directing in an equally memorable Much Ado about Nothing. In 1990 Bell Shakespeare was born, and if one didn’t always admire the productions, Bell’s attempts to locate a given play’s heart were plain.

John Bell. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Seven years after he quit as artistic director, we arrive at this Bell Shakespeare-produced solo show, One Man in His Time. Bell read, recited, told anecdotes, explained methodologies and espoused theories, all the while bringing Shakespeare closer to us, rather than exalting him beyond our reach. This was no night of sound and fury, but an intimate celebration.

His light, melodious voice danced across the words, although his delivery could sometimes be too quick to fully illuminate them. Having brilliantly described the function of the soliloquies, he then rather undercooked his delivery of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be, Macbeth’s “If it were done when ’tis done…” and Richard II’s “…let us sit upon the ground/and tell sad stories of the death of kings…”. Enobarbus’ peerless “barge” speech from Antony and Cleopatra was too rushed for us fully to luxuriate in its beauty, and when he attempted Cleopatra’s “O see my women,/Th’ crown o’ the earth doth melt…” he did full justice to the poetry, but not her anguish.

By contrast Bell adopted voices other than his own for Jack Cade in Henry VI and Justice Shallow in Henry IV, and you instantly felt the room tighten around him. He superbly explained Shakespeare’s genius for leaving questions unanswered, thereby making his work timeless, and delivered Hamlet’s injunction to the players as an exasperated director – a Shakespeare/Bell hybrid, if you will. We left in the glow of having communed with one who has burrowed deep beneath the mountain of Shakespeare’s work, weighed every word, and then imparted both his wisdom and his lyricism.