Peter Evans by Prudence Upton.

Stage

30 years of celebrating the Bard Down Under

Bell Shakespeare marks its 30th birthday in 2020. Anders Furze spoke to artistic director Peter Evans about the company’s anniversary program – and the playwright’s continuing relevance.

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John Bell’s ambition seemed simple enough when, in 1990, he founded a theatre company with the aim of producing the plays of William Shakespeare “in a way that was relevant and exciting to Australian audiences”. But 30 years later, including four without Bell himself at the helm, what role does Bell Shakespeare play in the Australian cultural landscape?

“I’m not sure it’s actually changed,” says artistic director Peter Evans. “I’ve actually found some mission statement stuff that Bell wrote in 1990 and I thought it was spooky actually… It could almost be in the mission statement now. It was all about the Australian voice, and access for all Australians.”

The Australian voice has “expanded quite a lot” from 1990 to now, he adds, “in terms of casting, gender… possibly the work we were making 30 years ago has changed a little bit, but the reasons for making it are the same.”

The company kicks off its 2020 season with Hamlet, the first play Bell Shakespeare ever staged. For that reason, it has become something of an anniversary production for the company, which returns to it every few years.

Evans will direct, and plans to set his production in early 1960s Europe, partly to evoke the play’s nostalgia.

“We think of Hamlet as always modern, in a way: each generation finding themselves in the play,” he says. “But the Elizabethans would have seen it has having a lot of nostalgia in it, whether to an old religion, or to a heroic leadership. And Hamlet himself is quite a nostalgic character.

“I’m too young to have lived through the 60s, but there’s still a kind of cultural nostalgia for the start of that decade, which I thought was interesting.”

Survey feedback suggests Bell Shakespeare’s audiences prefer a balance of comedies and tragedies in their two halves of the year, Evans notes, and the second play for 2020 will be The Comedy of Errors, directed by Janine Watson.

“She’s particularly moved by it. Obviously, there’s a lot of farce and silliness, but she’s also focused on the potential tragedy that kicks off the play, and this very emotional ending, if you get it right.”

Evans’ association with Bell Shakespeare goes back to 1996, when he landed the role of assistant director to veteran British actor and director Steven Berkoff, who was in Australia mounting a production of Coriolanus.

“I think the company was extremely lucky in that it was built around philanthropy. It’s still a massive part of what makes [it] work. Philanthropy is built into the DNA.”

By 2005, he an associate director alongside Marion Potts, before heading to the Melbourne Theatre Company. When Potts took over the Malthouse Theatre, Bell gave Evans a call.

“He said, ‘Would you like to come over, we can work together, and then look at handing over at some point?’ It was a big thing, a frightening thing, in a way. But an extraordinary opportunity to devote yourself to this kind of work.”

These are straitened times for the Australian arts, and Evans says it would be a challenge to establish a similar company today. “I think the company was extremely lucky in that it was built around philanthropy. It’s still a massive part of what makes [it] work. Philanthropy is built into the DNA.”

Alongside its main program, Bell Shakespeare runs an extensive schools’ program, and delivers workshops in juvenile justice centres. “It’s a crash course in Shakespeare, but actually in acting, presentation and working together as a team to bring these things together.”

The company’s keeping busy, but is the Bard as relevant in 2020 as he was centuries ago? Evans gently bristles at the question.

“The works are endlessly relevant…There are some people probably who would think we’re supposed to be preserving something, [as] some kind of heritage thing. But the company has never viewed itself like that.

“They’re living documents…The things are living and breathing.”

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