John Bell: performs not just Shakespeare but French playwrights too

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Australia’s wonderful actor and theatre director John Bell needs little introduction. He founded the Bell Shakespeare Company 29 years ago but many don’t know that he also performs and directs plays outside of the realm of Shakespeare. Currently performing in Molière’s “The Miser” in Melbourne, John Bell will also be reprising his 2018 role in the French play “Diplomacy” in Sydney in June.


Image: Prudence Upton


John Bell was kind enough to grant us an interview, which you can read below. Show dates and ticket links can be found at the conclusion of the article.


Bell Shakespeare


The Bell Shakespeare company will celebrate 30 years next year. What production are you most proud of over the company’s history?

Over the last 30 years, the production for Bell Shakespeare I  am happiest with is Goldoni’s “Servant of Two Masters”— it was a joyous event.


Are there any Shakespeare works that you do not think can be adapted to a 21st century Australian public?

I think all of Shakespeare’s plays can work in the 21st Century…Even if certain attitudes,  e.g gender politics , have changed, there is enough common humanity to bind us to them. The plays are very tolerant of differing interpretations…They were meant to be controversial.


French works

Bell Shakespeare has produced a few French productions including Molière’s The Literati, The School for Wives, The Misanthrope and most recently The Miser as well as Racine’s Phèdre. Is there anything in particular that draws you to French adaptations?

The B.S.C has staged about 6 French classics…Both Molière and Racine are close enough contemporaries of Shakespeare to warrant comparison and they are rarely staged in Australia.



What/who is your favourite French play/playwright?

Molière remains my favourite French playwright.



How do Molière’s plays differ from Shakespeare’s? Is their gap of several generations apparent?

He is different to Shakespeare in that most of his characters remain stereotypes: The young lovers, the cocky servant, the man who is the voice of reason, etc…. Only the protagonists ( Tartuffe, The Miser, The Hypochondriac, the Misanthrope ) have any originality. But they too lack psychological complexity— each of them has one obsession…..So playing Molière is close to playing Farce. It was Shakespeare who invented the idea of personality, the realisation that we are not” types” but a bundle of contradictions and warring impulses— Hamlet is the supreme example.


The joy of Molière is in his ingenious plotting and warm humanity.



You’re appearing on stage in a reprisal of your 2018 role in Cyril Gély’s Diplomacy, a play written in 2011. It’s a reminder that Paris was almost lost had it not been for a defiant German Nazi soldier. Do you think with current conflicts around the world there is a modern-day message in Diplomacy?

During the current era of Terrorism and threats of mass destruction, “Diplomacy” reminds us of the menace of populist dictators, their indifference to human suffering, the need to defend our cultural heritage, material and spiritual.



Having a comprehensive history in Shakespeare with a bit of Molière thrown in, it is somewhat rare for you to produce or perform in a play that doesn’t need to be adapted (particularly in language) to modern times. What was the appeal in working on a piece from more modern times?

Besides producing Shakespeare and other classics , I have long been a champion of new writing , especially Australian, and have directed over thirty new works, largely for the Nimrod Theatre Company which was established for that purpose.


Why should people see Diplomacy?

Audiences respond to “ Diplomacy” because it a tightly constructed thriller which tells an amazing story, namely the rescue of Paris from the Nazis; a story many people haven’ t heard.


Modern times

In times when people are choosing to stay in and watch movies or TV shows via screening services, how do you encourage and engage audiences to come to the theatre?

People will keep coming to Theatre, especially in a venue like the Ensemble which is vital and immediate— you are in such close proximity to the action you feel you are part of it. Theatre is a live, not a mechanical, experience.



What play would you like to produce that you have not yet had the occasion to and where would you play it?

I have played King Lear three times but never directed it…It is the Everest of plays for all concerned…I have directed nearly all of Shakespeare’s other plays and would happily do them all again—-They are endlessly intriguing.


Are there any other French productions that you are working on/have plans to work on?

No other French plays in the pipeline at the moment.


You can see John Bell in Cyril Géry’s “Diplomacy” at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney from 21 June to 14 July. Tickets are available for purchase here.


You can also see John Bell in the John Bell Shakespeare company production of Molière’s “The Miser” in Melbourne from 25 April to 12 May. Tickets for that show are available here. 


Have you ever seen John Bell on stage?

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