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John Bell & Anna Volska on the world stage

Antares on Bell Shakespeare’s corporatization of the Bard 

John Bell is arguably one of the world’s most accomplished Shakespearean actors without a knighthood – a likely successor to late luminaries like Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud. Local theater-lovers had the rare opportunity to watch an old master at work when Bell Shakespeare recently presented All The World’s A Stage at the Actors Studio.


Anna Volska
& John Bell

TWO masters, to be precise, as John was accompanied by his wife, Anna Volska, a highly polished stage and screen veteran herself. The program was intended as a cozy evening of poetry readings with the main focus on Shakespeare. It was the sort of thing that would also work very well on radio, as John and Anna have such beautifully modulated and perfectly trained voices, one didn’t actually need visuals to enjoy the evocative quality of their renditions.

The high point of the evening for me was a longish poem by James Fenton describing this odd creature called Man. It was an artful anthropological treatise compressed into five minutes of sharp insight and sardonic wit. A short piece by e.e. cummings (one of my favorite poets in my teen years) was exquisitely read by Anna. Another transcendent moment was John’s recital of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s immortal Kubla Khan. Other literary notables featured, apart from the Bard of Avon himself, were D.H. Lawrence, A.E. Housman, and Christopher Logue – whose contemporary take on Homer’s Iliad impressed with its power to conjure the most pompously vivid imagery. Pompous?

John & Anna in Macbeth

Were it not for John and Anna’s well-honed finesse and taste – and the seamless ease with which they comported themselves on stage – the very idea of sitting down in a theater and listening to over an hour of well-crafted words culled from the English literary tradition might have struck one as a tad pompous. Indeed, the duo did a superb job of packaging and promoting “highbrow” culture as a very classy commodity – something one would do well to acquire a taste for if one sought entry into the loftier echelons of society. And it might seem churlish and petty of me to inject a sour note into what was essentially a pleasantly aesthetic evening at the theater, savoring the music and poetry of the English tongue at its quintessential best.

However, it was all just a wee bit too precious for my liking. Blame it on my dyspeptic disposition that evening. After all, it was Halloween (whatever that means to us) and Dr M’s last day as prime minister. Unprecedented solar flares were bombarding the earth’s magnetic field, and monster plasma waves were generating spectacular aurora borealises in northern skies. Astrologers were agog with excitement over the Grand Sextile Alignment accompanied by the Scorpio Full Moon Eclipse coming up the following week. In London, Tony Blair was recuperating from a heart attack and the Windsors were bracing themselves for another disastrous round of family scandals. Tensions in the Middle East were rising while confidence in the US dollar was dropping. Rumors were rife that Israel was planning pre-emptive strikes on Syria, and reports of massive UFO sightings were flying in thick and fast.


Portrait of Anna Volska by Mathew Lynn

In short, the whole world appeared to be at a critical crossroads between heaven and hell. Yet here I was, attending the literary equivalent of a touring exhibition of Waterford Crystal sponsored by the Australian High Commission. I felt as if I was on the Titanic amongst the upper deck passengers, making small talk and relishing the chateaubriand, blissfully unaware of the looming iceberg just ahead.

All The World’s A Stage was like a showcase of precious gems – scintillating stuff, if one goes for fine jewelry and other species of ornamental art. But for me the show was all hors d’oeuvres and no main course – it merely tickled the aesthetic palate. The regicidal scene in which Anna, as Lady Macbeth, invites the demons of ruthless ambition to take possession of her body was chilling indeed – and could perhaps pass for the pièce de résistance of the evening – but it seemed to serve little purpose apart from displaying John and Anna’s firm grasp of the Shakespearean idiom.

One does not dispute the elegance and refinement of such exquisitely crafted art – but it’s hard to get too worked up over yet another museum display of past glories. Shakespeare was undoubtedly cutting edge stuff back in the 17th century but today – relevant though many of his themes still are – much of the juice has been squeezed out of his lines (how many times and how many ways can one perform Portia’s “quality of mercy” soliloquy, for instance, without coming across as a crushing bore – and do we honestly want our children to go around spouting iambic pentameters?).

So amidst all these raging portents of apocalypses and epiphanies, we are invited to attend a symposium on Shakespeare – a panel discussion with John Bell and local theater practitioners and academics au fait with the Shakespearean tradition. I’m sure the Bard would have appreciated the dramatic contrast, the theatrical irony of discussing the relevance of his work in the modern world, in a country where the overall standard of English has deteriorated so rapidly in less than two generations. I wasn’t there but, from reports I have received, the event was well attended and the response surprisingly enthusiastic – with many schoolchildren expressing the opinion that they would enjoy having Shakespeare re-introduced into the literature syllabus.

But, then, schoolchildren are a generally receptive bunch and would be just as enthusiastic about Russian or Japanese or Italian literature – or perhaps something much funkier and more upbeat, like Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, for instance – if it was engagingly brought to their attention. And, for sure, there can be no better salesman for Shakespeare than John Bell, whose efforts on behalf of the English language certainly merit a knighthood on top of the OBE (Order of the British Empire ) and AM (Member of the Order of Australia) he has already been awarded. Indeed, Australian prime minister John Howard recently conferred the prestigious Cultural Leader of the Year Award on John Bell – presumably for helping propel Australian theater beyond the era of cultural cringe.


Theater celebrities

Pardon my irrational bias, but I can’t help feeling a little wary whenever the Establishment begins to confer titles on artists – it usually means they have been screened and considered an asset to the Status Quo rather than a potential threat. A good example of this was presented in a short excerpt from one of Tom Stoppard’s plays which had John Bell in the rôle of Henry, an established playwright: his wife is trying to enlist his support in her campaign to spring a young playwright named Brody from jail and get his anarchist play produced. Henry is entirely dismissive of the younger playwright’s work, which happens to be overtly anti-Establishment, ostensibly because his language is unrefined and unsophisticated. Herein lies an age-old paradox: by the time an artist has polished his craft to the required level of sophistication so as to be labeled virtuoso, it is almost inevitable that he has left his Dionysian roots to join the salaried ranks of the Apollonians.

The mythic scholar and poet Robert Graves once defined a Dionysian poet as one who writes only to celebrate his own Muse, while an Apollonian is really just a commissioned wordsmith, paid handsomely to sing the praises of the State, or to promote a marketable commodity.

To John and Anna’s credit, their virtuosity was of such a high order that one could only applaud their hard-won skills – and yet, the one glimmer of raw vitality the evening yielded for me was when Henry, the established playwright, mockingly quotes a few lines from Brody’s unpublished play, addressing cogent issues like class warfare, media manipulation and social engineering. True, John was merely re-enacting his Henry character for us, but he was sufficiently convincing in his upper-class snobbery to make me feel an instant empathy with the poor imprisoned, socially unacceptable would-be playwright Brody. At least Brody’s effort was a celebration of the ecstatic, rather than the static. 

13 November 2003

Know Thy Shakespeare!

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.


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.


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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