Shakespeare – A Conversation with John Bell AO

Shakespeare’s works, saturated with vibrant images, language, movement and characters, remain ripe for twenty first century adaptation across theatre, ballet, television, and film.

To begin the task of delving into one of The Bard’s lesser known works, The Winter’s Tale, we invited famed actor, writer, director and founder of Bell Shakespeare, John Bell, to a conversation on the Cremorne Theatre stage. He led a group of QPAC staff through themes of jealousy, shipwreck, brother versus brother, forgiveness and reconciliation on the way to the colourful world of Bohemia. Here’s a snapshot...

Let's begin...

John Bell: So, let’s start with the story. It’s set in the beginning in Sicilia…

[extended plot summary that includes best friends, alleged adultery, madness, banishment, death, a shipwreck, a bear, adopted baby, concealed identity, forgiveness and resurrection]


John Bell: What relevance has the play today to an audience, you know, apart from a great story, beautiful story? I’m not sure if the ballet emphasises this, but there are uncomfortable echoes of domestic violence in this and the way men can treat women and the effect it has on their children. I think what you take away with you is the enormity of the crime, Leontes’ grief, his repentance. You take away Paulina’s patience and wisdom, the way she handles it and most of all you take away forgiveness. Hermione’s forgiveness, which is the greatest… how could anyone forgive that? But she does and that’s what makes it uplifting. We are capable of being as good as Hermione.

Alex: Shakespeare often uses a disguise for women to have power, but Paulina doesn’t seem to have that. Would you say that perhaps Shakespeare represents her as sort of a Venus figure in the text?

John Bell: That’s fantastic. I haven’t heard of that before.

Emily: In the ballet they do really go down that domestic violence path. It’s quite violent in that first scene especially when Hermione comes out when she’s pregnant and there’s all of this gesturing towards her belly and kind of throwing her to the ground. I think that’s a really strong theme that comes out. It is very clear in the physicality of dance – throwing her away.


Inga: Why don’t you think the son comes back to life? Is there any significance in that? Like he can’t have it all back?

John Bell: I think that’s right. It would be just too good!

Elaine: There’s also a sense of universal punishment of some kind. You must pay a price for the cost of your actions to other people.

John Bell: Yes, I think that’s right. He can never be really happy again – totally – because of what he’s done. You can’t make up for all of that.

Elaine: I’m really struck by the notion that Leontes’ madness is so sudden and so psychotic compared to the other kinds of madness that Shakespeare investigates in Macbeth and Othello, which are drawn on by other characters – other characters manipulating and working on a character’s weakness.

John Bell: I’d say that Lear got pretty close to it. He just snaps and says, 'get outThat’s a bit like Leontes there and it’s certainly irrational…it’s coming from arrogance and pride and being embarrassed in public.


John Bell: I would say that by the end of the trial scene when he says, 'yes, you're right, you're actually right I've done terrible things'. He’s coming back out of it then. He realises. He’s coming back to his senses, but that’s not enough. He has to go through all this repentance before he can be forgiven. So it’s a temporary insanity and he can be shocked out of it just as he was shocked into it, by witnessing something that he thought he saw. He can be shocked out of it by the death of his son and death of his wife. Those two severe shocks seem to bring him out of it.

Elaine: But also, dramatically, it’s just extraordinary isn’t it? Like, too hot, too hot – BANG! We’re right there. In the audience at the time, we’re going, 'oh my god' – 'what’s going to happen now?' It’s just such a perfect narrative choice.

John Bell: Yes, Shakespeare doesn’t ease you into it.

Elaine: No. It slaps you across the head and you have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next. Anything is possible on the stage now. It’s also a sense of his own approaching death – his own inability to maintain his kingdom and control. 

John Bell: He has this fantasy about, 'I’ll just retire now and I’ll come and stay with you all and have a lovely soft retirement and look at all my work'. He’s got these unrealistic expectations and he’s used to flattery…it’s an old man’s arrogance.

Elaine: Polixenes says a similar thing in this play where he talks about the quality of Leontes’ rage and jealousy – I can’t remember the exact words – but because Hermione is as beautiful and pure as she is, so his jealousy must be enormous, because he is a man of such position, so his anger will be…

John Bell: …all the greater!

Price of greatness

Elaine: Yes, so it seems to be like a recurring Shakespearean theme around the notion of the cost of greatness.

John Bell: Well, it’s certainly the arrogance of entitlement. Thinking that because you’re a certain position you have the right to stand on people – the authoritarian. That’s a pretty common theme and most of the Kings have to learn that along the line somewhere…that they are human. Lear most of all. You can’t go on doing that to people. They all pay the price for arrogance – Julius Caesar for instance. You can’t just assume ongoing entitlement.

Brendan: Hopefully Donald Trump might not!


En Rui: Amidst jealousy, domestic violence would you argue there’s an overarching theme of art versus humanity? You know, the kind of madness that he portrays is actually a very inherent part of human nature…the art of love has driven him insane.

John Bell: It’s hard to find one simple thematic line…because it’s such a complex piece.

Jennifer: Redemption?

John Bell: Redemption I suppose is a good word…one single word for it, but redemption has to happen through someone redeeming you, it’s not just you. Someone has to forgive you. You have to be prepared to accept it. At the end of The Tempest everybody accepts forgiveness, except Antonio. So it’s a two-way thing. You’ve got to be ready to be forgiven.

Lauren: I’m interested in that theme of redemption and how important it is in this story…will modern audiences follow Hermione with her forgiveness? Not having seen it, I find it a bit hard to believe that I would come out of 16 years and say 'yes I forgive you'. I wonder if the appreciation of the play for a modern audience hinges on them buying the forgiveness?

John Bell: It will be interesting to see.

Lauren: I wonder if this play does give us the opportunity to have a nuanced look at forgiveness which, at the moment on our stages, we don’t see so much? There’s this encouragement towards either don’t go back or there’s the tragedy of the person staying in the situation.

Jennifer: Or even revenge.

Art form

Inga: When you were talking about the difference between the ballet and the spoken, dramatic work, I actually think it’s almost like the symbols that you talked through are more at the forefront in the ballet because you lose all the text. They really pinpoint these key moments…I don’t know if you saw, she’s got a necklace, which symbolises her royalty. That’s her mum’s necklace and it’s hers and that’s how they find out, 'oh, it is my daughter'.

Jennifer: It was a really good story for ballet because you can simplify it down to those symbols…it needs a clear narrative to carry it through and I thought it was a really good choice for a story ballet. When I saw it as a play I thought it was quite simple and didn’t realise there was all this complexity involved.

John Kotzas: The Winter’s Tale is the first time since 1965 that The Royal Ballet has committed to a story ballet. The last one was Romeo and Juliet. Now, we know Christopher Wheeldon is a great choreographer, but this is quite a brave decision and an interesting challenge after a long period of time.

John Bell: They have kept Romeo and Juliet in their repertoire. It’s something that nobody else has thought of doing frankly. I think they’re a bit frightened of Shakespeare, 'how could I possibly put that in dance, it seems kind of presumptuous'. So I think they’ve made a clever choice, actually, because it’s a fairy story. Fairy stories are easier to do than, let’s say, Macbeth.

Enduring relevance

Emily: Do you think Shakespeare had any idea that 400 years later we’d be sitting around dissecting his work?

John Bell: Probably not. He didn’t publish his plays. They sold copies of them, but he never collected them all together. That was done by his friends after he died. Ben Jonson was the first one to put all of his works together and call it his works and people mocked him – 'what are you talking about works, they’re plays!' Works were philosophy and poetry. Shakespeare did publish his sonnets. He was very proud of his sonnets and his poems.

John Kotzas: I think that’s a really good question. Which of our playwrights will be relevant in 400 years’ time? Which of our musicians will be relevant?

Emily: Which TV show? Game of Thrones, we know!

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