There is a saying that old actors never retire – they just get carried off in a box. It’s a motto that John Bell, Australia’s unofficial patriarch of the theatre, can relate to and laughs about.
Now 76, Bell is firmly in the King Lear of his life – and he couldn’t be happier. From directing a big opera, to playing a character with dementia, this versatile performer continues to push boundaries and achieve new heights in his artistic endeavours.
Bell has directed the production of Tosca four times
He is just wrapping up directing the opera Tosca for Opera Australia, starting on some recital work with a string quartet, before playing the lead in a new play for the Sydney Theatre Company in August.
He stepped down as Artistic Director from the eponymously named Bell Shakespeare theatre company in 2015, but clearly is not considering retirement, although he admits that some actors do decide enough is enough.
“Some people retire because they either can’t remember lines anymore – which is the biggest nightmare of any actor – or due to some physical disability, or just exhaustion,” he says.
“A few get bored with acting and want to do something else, but most just want to keep on doing it because it gives us so much in return. You get so much out of it. I don’t see myself retiring until I really have to.”
This production of Tosca is the fourth time he’s directed the opera, which is known as being a bums-on-seats opera because of its eternal popularity with audiences.
Bell’s production sets the Puccini opera during the German occupation of Rome in 1943-44. It’s a dramatic interpretation, allowing the powerful and emotional music to blend in with imagery of swastikas, Nazi uniforms and chilling scenes, including a firing squad.
Bell's production of Tosca seeks to recapture the banality of evil during World War II
It’s high emotion. Tosca is known as being quite melodramatic (although that could be said of most operas), but Bell’s direction manages to give the opera an element of gravitas by highlighting its political themes amidst the personal tragedy.
“I think you have to have faith in it and go for it,” he says, “because although the form is melodrama I think Puccini [the composer] has given it so much humanity and passion.”
“I think what’s extraordinary about it is he is such a great dramatist – all you have to do is listen to the music again and again and you can hear what people are thinking, what they’re feeling – you can even hear where they’re moving to. He [Puccini] allows pauses and enough time for people to cross the stage. You think, ‘gosh, I can see it all in my head how the whole thing works’. He’s a wonderful theatrical dramatist.”
His next challenge is a play for the Sydney Theatre Company, where he plays the lead in The Father, a new play that tackles the subject of ageing. Bell plays André, an 80-year-old man who may or may not be suffering from dementia.
He says it is exciting to take on a complex part written for someone his own age, but says he still references Shakespeare for inspiration.
“In a sense, all these sort of roles have descended from King Lear in a way, which is the great role for any senior actor,” he says. “Whenever you play these sort of roles, you can’t help but think about King Lear and how it’s influenced the great archetype of the elderly autocrat.”
And, surprisingly, Bell says that he is seeing more roles written for someone of his age.
“I suppose what’s interesting about this current crop of plays is that the audience is getting older, and they want to see older people on stage,” he adds. “There’s been a rush of films with people like Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and other senior actors doing stories about old age.
“I think that with the ageing population we have it’s no longer just about teenagers in love, it’s a wider audience – people with parents who are getting on, perhaps getting ill or getting dementia.
“We can all relate to that; we’ve all had parents in that situation or we’ve got friends who have, so it’s a hot topic.”
Is it hard as an actor to get into the mindset of a character who is going through dementia? “I can draw on my own experience – people I’ve known,” he says. “And I’ve known quite a few now. As you get older, more people you know are going through that, so you can draw on that experience.”
These are important stories to tell, says Bell and whether they are opera or theatre, they still resonate with audiences.
A thrilling story of love, lust and betrayal
“All of Puccini’s operas – Madama Butterfly, La Bohéme – they still resonate because they are so truthful. They’re cruel in a way; they don’t spare us the truth,” he says. “They tell us the dark side of life and the suffering of life. It’s not just beautiful music, it’s also very powerful truthful human stories about really ordinary people.”
Have you been to the theatre or opera lately? What’s been your favourite production?