When John Bell founded Bell Shakespeare in 1990, it was an audacious idea to run an Australian company dedicated to the Bard. The company took its first tentative steps in productions of Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice in a circus tent in the Sydney Showgrounds, now the Entertainment Quarter. It wasn’t the most auspicious beginning – the tent was sweltering hot, the sightlines weren’t great, and the acting was uneven.
Many wondered if the company would see out the year. For the next five years, it was touch and go. But here the company is, celebrating its 30th year with Peter Evans now the Artistic Director, having taken over from Bell when he left in 2015.
Harriet Gordon-Anderson will play Hamlet. Photograph supplied
Evans didn’t see Bell Shakespeare’s inaugural productions – he first met Bell when he left NIDA at the end of 1995. “But I’ve obviously heard a great deal of stories about that time and the unlikely nature of this experiment John had embarked on. It does feel extraordinary that it’s now 30 years,” he tells Limelight.
“When we were doing The Miser earlier this year, John and I spoke about it quite a lot. It’s pretty amazing to start a company like that, and to be here 30 years later is quite extraordinary.”
Bell Shakespeare will start its 2020 season with a new production of Hamlet, the very first show the company ever performed. “When I first started thinking about the season, we thought we might be in Pier 2/3 and there’s a little studio we’ve been designing there that we’re calling The Nutshell, which of course is a reference to Hamlet. And that’s where the thinking started,” says Evans.
“A couple of years ago it became clear that we probably weren’t going to be in there by the 30th anniversary, but I thought it still made sense to do the play. I haven’t directed it for the company. I did it once when I was quite young in New Zealand, but I have been long waiting to work on the play again. It feels like the company can do Hamlet every five or six years, and it felt like the perfect opportunity for us to have another look at it, and maybe have a slightly different look at it.”
The production, which Evans will direct, will feature Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Hamlet, though the character remains male.
“When we were doing Richard 3 with Kate Mulvany, I always intended for her to be playing a male, but not disguising the fact that [she had] a female body. [So it wasn’t] Kate doing an impression of a man, but just trying to attack the character with as much clarity as possible. And it became very clear that we can have our cake and eat it too – that we can explore a particular kind of masculinity that Shakespeare is very good at looking at, particularly masculinity under pressure and the often appalling behaviour that provokes, but also to be able to [see] a female body. We can hold both those things in our head. And it felt after Richard 3 that Hamlet was even more interesting, potentially, for a female actor to attack.”
Evans chose Gordon-Anderson after directing her in The Miser and decided that she was “the most interesting young actor” he had come across in a while. “I had a mentor a long time ago, who I remember very clearly saying to me ‘when you’re doing Hamlet, you must be interested in the mind of the actor playing Hamlet’ and Harriet is very, very smart, she’s got a real keen intelligence, but she’s also a little bit mysterious, which I think is really interesting in tackling that part.”
Designed by Anna Tregloan with sound by Max Lyandvert and lighting by Benjamin Cisterne, the glamorous production will be set in Denmark in the 1960s. Evans agrees that the specific location is “a little bit of a departure” for him. “I haven’t tended to set plays in any specific time or place, but we’ve been doing quite a lot of audience feedback over the last few years and I think for some of our audience a bit of time and place can help. A Scandinavian 1960s royal family will be a lot of fun from a design perspective. But also, maybe in a way, our relationship with the play is so nostalgic and it can often feel like a memory play at times, and I’m interested in exploring that.”
Hamlet will open in Sydney on February 29 and then tour to Canberra and Melbourne.
Julia Billington will appear in The Comedy of Errors. Photograph supplied
Later in the year, Janine Watson, who has worked regularly with Bell Shakespeare since 2013 as both an actor and director in their education team, will direct Shakespeare’s entertaining romp The Comedy of Errors. The production, which will feature Julia Billington (Janet King), will embark on a four-month tour across 28 centres from July.
“[The Comedy of Errors] is very different from Hamlet but I hope it’s complementary and a celebration. It’s joyous, it’s about reunions, and Janine is very keen that we’ll laugh and cry,” says Evans. “I think when you’ve really nailed the play it’s hilarious, but it’s also very moving and very poignant when they all come together at the end. It’s just a lovely night in the theatre.”
To mark the 30th anniversary celebrations, Bell Shakespeare will also present John Bell in One Man In His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare, available as an add-on to people who buy a theatre package. In the show, Bell will discuss his life and his relationship with Shakespeare.