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Know Thy Shakespeare!

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John Bell founded Bell Shakespeare in 1990

Antares is infected by “the power and the passion” of Bell Shakespeare’s ACTORS AT WORK 

Fortunately for the Muslim world, pedants who insist that Shakespeare’s plays were actually authored by Francis Bacon seem to have given up the acrimonious dispute. Otherwise some mufti in Kedah would be calling for an outright ban of Bacon’s Hamlet on the grounds that the play isn’t halal. And corpulent schoolkids would be oinking approvingly at Bell Bacon’s highly effective introduction to the Lard of Avon’s greatest hits through its “Actors At Work” touring program.

Indeed, Bill Shakespeare would be way richer than that other Bill – if he could somehow demand posthumous royalties for public performances of his world-famous repertoire of plays. For two days last month, the Sydney-based Bell Shakespeare company demonstrated to packed houses at the Actors Studio Bangsar just how adaptable, durable, and universal Shakespeare’s work is.

The “Actors At Work” team consisted of four energetic, charming, and disciplined young performers – James Evans, Anna Steen, Lucy Taylor, and Bryce Youngman – led by BSC associate artistic director Des James. Theirs was a grueling schedule of three one-hour workshop performances per day. Little wonder that Youngman’s rich stage voice was reduced to a Ramli Sarip-ish rasp. At question time Youngman was asked about his laryngitis and he explained that he was down with a bad cold. The fact that the group had just left SARS-stricken Singapore made one ponder how easy it is to spread fear and panic far and wide, not to mention mystery viruses. Thank goodness they weren’t handing out surgical masks at the door. Needless to say, Youngman’s partial loss of voice in no way detracted from the group’s infectious enthusiasm.

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The Bard in black

The black-clad quartet presented selected scenes from Julius Caesar, Othello, and Macbeth – with helpful commentaries on each snippet that drew our attention to perennially relevant themes pertaining to the perilous pitfalls of hubris, the sheer folly of violent regime change, envy, malice, possessiveness, and overweening ambition.

It was obvious that Bell Shakespeare had meticulously worked out a program catering for secondary schools with wide appeal to anyone feeling a little unsure about Shakespeare. The material was thought-provoking and the presentation slick and stylish, with a generous sprinkling of humor thrown in. One can only salute the dedication and sincerity of the “Actors At Work” team. They certainly succeeded in bringing Shakespeare to life and making his timeless text accessible, while demolishing the philistine notion that anything written 400 years ago couldn’t be any fun to watch today.

Founded in 1990 by award-winning actor-director John Bell, OBE and AM (Order of the British Empire and Member of the Order of Australia), Bell Shakespeare appears to have done extremely well with its Shakespeare franchise.

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Bacon? No thanks,
I prefer Hamlet

Focusing almost exclusively on its Shakespearean repertoire (24 full productions in 13 years plus a hectic school workshop program), BSC recently began to explore other classic works (Euripides, Strindberg, and O’Neill, to name a few). Its status as an Australian cultural export (mainly to Singapore for the present) is well deserved, even though a few Brits may raise their eyebrows at the notion of rendering the Bard’s hallowed lines in Strine (something Bell has reportedly experimented with). BSC’s two-day foray into Malaysia was a way of testing the local waters, so to speak – and judging by the warm reception, we’ll probably be seeing a lot more of these lovable and talented “Actors At Work.”

On a more personal note, I very nearly scrapped my plans to catch the show when I learnt that an American oil giant – reportedly among the biggest contributors to the Bush electoral campaign –  was the local corporate sponsor for “Actors At Work.”  Some may choose to separate culture from geopolitics, but it seems to me downright provocative – in these times when public sentiment is raw over the bloody US-UK-OZ invasion and occupation of Iraq – that a British cultural icon marketed by an Aussie theater company should be supported by American oil interests. That particular combination brought on a surrealistic sense of foreboding – and made me want to shake a bamboo spear at a stormtrooper, or garrotte a Nazgul with a soiled loincloth, rather than wholeheartedly applaud.

9 April 2003

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About Antares

Author, illustrator, actor, musician, composer, arts reviewer, blogger, Abominable Jungleman. Also a stargate activator, ceremonial guardian, interdimensional gatekeeper, pendragon-in-exile, and retired deity.

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