“You have two voices: one for the stage and one for the pub. Don’t mix them up.”
John Bell is 73. It is literally half a century since he graduated from USyd. Despite this, he does not look, act, or sound out of place surrounded by the current theatrical cohort at our university, as he proved in a three hour Shakespearean master class that he conducted last Thursday.
It was 52 years ago that Bob Ellis (who still reviews our shows) wrote of Bell in the pages of Honi as a “top dog uni actor, cartoonist, good bloke.” In his introduction, Nathaniel Pemberton (director of the SUDS Hamlet production this year) described him as a national living treasure, and Bell responded with a cheer and two punches of the air. He is charming, he is thoughtful, and he is in a privileged position to which only a handful in the Australian arts community will ascend – one which many more will struggle for, only to fall short.
John Bell represents one of only a handful of Australians who make a real living through theatre. While his reputation is now enough to sustain him, there were no such assurances during his time in The Players (a dramatic society more or less as SUDS is now) and SUDS (then a chiefly postgraduate society), however, there did exist a culture of artistic criticism that could be depended upon. Student productions made every other front page of Honi from the late fifties into the mid-sixties. Clive James’ indefatigable body of review material saw the likes of Bell scrutinised in every issue. And that’s great.
Aside from excellent advice on approaches to Shakespeare, performance and scripts generally, Bell spoke about the state of theatre in Australia. He knew from his time here that direction was his calling, saying, “other things may have appeared to change that, but they didn’t. I had the opportunity to follow those things through.” Bell’s drive was not solely the allure of the study of Shakespeare, nor of theatre, but their intersection: staging the Bard’s works. He freely confessed that he would play most every character he ever had played again and advised that “you’ll never nail it. You’ll never get it right.”
I, along with the rest of the SUDS, am tremendously thankful for Bell’s time and insight on Thursday. It is affirming to know that he has the generosity of spirit to offer his full support to Hamlet, our major production this year. But more than his assurance that he would be there on opening night, his assistance was an inspiring reminder that art is worth pursuing and is pursuable. Decades ago, students of our University were the best placed to follow real careers in making an infinitely precious, but difficult to value, product. It is hard not to envy him, or the fecund stomping ground from which his career grew.