John Bell on leadership lessons from Shakespeare

Speaker Key:

JB               John Bell

AL               Andrew Leigh


AL              No-one has done more than John Bell to bring Shakespeare to Australians. Trained at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Great Britain in the 1970s, he went on to co-found Nimrod and then Bell Shakespeare in 1990. During its more than 30 years in operation, Bell Shakespeare has performed to more than 3 million Australians in schools, in cultural centres and in communities. It has performed some 29 of Shakespeare’s 39 plays. John has since stepped down as the Head of Bell Shakespeare but at 80 remains active and has just written a book titled Some Achieve Greatness about the lessons for leadership we can draw from Shakespeare John Bell, thank you so much for joining me on The Good Life podcast today.

JB               Right, Andrew, nice to be here.

AL               So I was asking my 12-year-old in the car on the way to school this morning, can you imagine at age 15 deciding what you were going to be? Not just a broad profession but deciding that at age 15 you were going to be a Shakespeare actor, and my 12-year-old said he thought that was a remarkable decision. It strikes me as pretty remarkable too. What was it about the way you were turned on to Shakespeare that meant that by age 15 you’d made this your life’s passion?

JB               Well I think as so often it comes down to good teaching. I was fortunate to have two very, very good English teachers in my high school years and both of them were men who loved theatre, they loved poetry, they loved Shakespeare. And they saw my response to it and my willingness and enthusiasm to perform it and they both encouraged me very strongly to take it up as a career when I finished school which in those days was rather unusual advice. Not one that parents wanted to hear particularly.

AL               And I understand one of them had a particular love for A Midsummer Night’s Dream?

JB               That was the first one, the first Shakespeare I ever encountered, he was quite a remarkable teacher and instead of getting us to read the play he simply performed it for us every English lesson. He’d take on the scene and he’d play all the different voices and he’d walk up and down the aisles gesticulating and declaiming and describing the sets and the costumes. And so he brought the play alive for us, it wasn’t a book anymore, it was a live performance and I think that was what really thrilled me and I wanted to do something very similar.

AL               Increasingly these days Shakespeare is being taught to elite students but less so to the vast bulk of students who go through schools and universities. For me it was my high school English teacher Judith Anderson that opened my eyes to Shakespeare but you also talk about some clever ways in which Shakespeare’s insults can be used to engage students in the Bard.

JB               Yes, I think that’s one exercise that our educators use in the schools. The Bell Shakespeare Company has a team of players who go into schools and perform and one of the exercises they use is to give the kids a string of Shakespearian insults and line up and hurl them across the room at each other. And the kids find the language so exotic and extraordinary and remarkable that they understand that language can be something more than just the everyday commonplaces that we use.

AL               You’ve got two daughters, Lucy and Hilary, who are both actresses. What did you do as a father to inculcate their love of the theatre?

JB               I didn’t do anything active to encourage them nor did we discourage them, but they came along to the theatre all the time, and they often slept on the seats when they were very small, when we were rehearsing and they just grew up with it. And for a while they resisted it, I thought they might go an open an old dogs’ home or something instead…

                   But little by little they began to show interest in performing and as it turned out, Hilary, my elder daughter, is now a writer, a playwright, and Lucy has taken up the acting profession. But I don’t think you should ever either force something onto kids or discourage them. Let them find their own way and they’ll either take it up or not according to their own personal response.

AL               Your Shakespeare journey involved a five-year stint in the UK working as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company. To what extent did that experience of being out of Australia also allow you a sense of artistic freedom to shape yourself in a way in which you might not have gotten if you’d stayed in Australia as an actor?

JB               I think the main advantage was to work for five years with some of the best people in the business. With the Royal Shakespeare Company they had an amazing assembly of actors and directors and that’s where I really learned my craft was just watching them and being in the same room with them for that five years and I wouldn’t have had that experience in Australia. Although we had the talent here we didn’t have the structure and the range of theatrical ability, we didn’t have the range of circumstances that would allow you to work with that calibre of people all the time.

                   So that was really my education in theatre but when I came back to Australia, I realised that that was something foreign to us, that it was an English way of doing Shakespeare that was very excellent in its own way. But to do Shakespeare in this country we had to find our own way, our own voice and our own set of relationships in how we perform it.

AL               You were at Sydney University with Clive James and Germaine Greer, both of whom then went on to spend the bulk of their careers in the UK. But you really used that British time in order to give yourself a set of skills which you then came back and reinvested in the Australian community by first co-founding Nimrod and then founding Bell Shakespeare.

                   Had you always thought of yourself as a creator of organisations or did you create those organisations out of a sense of frustration that they just weren’t there?

JB               You’re right the second time around, yes, the first time with the founding of the Nimrod Theatre with my partner, the late Ken Horler, we decided that theatre needed more of a sort of American edge to it. The theatre at the time, I’m talking about the early 1970s, was fairly respectable and most of the content was foreign classics and overseas plays, the latest West End or Broadway hit. But there was very little being done in terms of encouraging Australian writing and Australian theatre.

                   So with the Nimrod it was a pretty rough and ready kind of theatrical setup but we were encouraging new writing all the time including indigenous writers and women writers, so that was a very necessary thing to do.

                   We weren’t the only ones doing it, there was the Australian Performing Group in Melbourne at the Pram Factory were doing something very similar. So there was just that movement I think in the 1970s, a new kind of nationalism was starting to emerge which supported that wave of writing and enthusiasm for Australian content.

As for the Bell Shakespeare Company, that was a similar urge. We felt there wasn’t enough Shakespeare being performed in Australia and if so there wasn’t a kind of reliable standard, it was a bit hit and miss. So we wanted to form a company that would give actors the chance to work on their craft and work on those texts over and over so they’d become more proficient in playing them.

                   So in both cases you were right, there was, I felt, a necessity for something to be set up.

AL               It’s always struck me as such a contrast between the two. One is about opening the space for new voices to be performed on the stage, the other is about performing only the plays of a dead white male. Did you see that as being a tension between the two or was that your evolution in terms of what you felt the Australian theatre scene needed?

JB               Well I think the two things, the new writing and the classics kind of belong on the same level playing field, they should play off each other. If you only have the new writing with no reference to the classics, then you’re living in a rather restricted area with no historical memory.        

                   If you only perform the classics then you’re not allowing any new voices to arise. And that’s one thing I did learn at The Royal Shakespeare Company, that they did maintain a company in Stratford-on-Avon playing Shakespeare, but then we moved down to London halfway through the year and performed new plays. And so the repertoire consisted of the best new English writing and the Shakespeare performances, and they did tend to bounce off each other.

                   So the Shakespeare became more relevant in terms of a new social context and the new writing became more aware of classical structure and discipline, so the two things fed into each other very well I thought.

                   So even when I founded the Nimrod, and that was mostly new Australian plays, we did at least one classic Shakespeare every year and later a Chekhov, etc., just to remind ourselves of our tradition and the high standards that have been reached in the past, and can we emulate those high standards and achieve something similar in the new writing.

AL               I’ve heard it said by a linguist that as the English language evolves, we are probably only a century or two away to the point where Shakespeare will need subtitles will need subtitles to be understood by the typical audience member. Where do you stand on the question of how modernised a Shakespeare production should be? It seems pretty normal now that you do modern costumes, but changing the language is a bit more controversial and then of course there’s how you deal with some of the issues around sexism, racism, anti-Semitism and the like.

JB               Yes, well, in terms of the language it is really modern English, I mean Shakespeare is one of the creators of modern English. It isn’t so much the language, it’s some of the references we don’t get. Unless you know your King James Bible and your Ovid to some extent you’re going to miss a lot of the references.

                   It’s the syntax and of course the vocabulary has changed and is changing all the time, just as with Chaucer we now need to be translated. I think it will be the same with Shakespeare in, God knows how many years’ time. Some people say it’s necessary even now, they can’t understand it.

                   But I think the actor’s job is to make it comprehensible, and most of it is, it’s just certain passages are very dense, very intellectually challenging and sometimes the vocabulary, the words have just dropped out of use.

                   And language is evolving so quickly all the time that I hear young people talking nowadays and I’m missing half what they’re talking about because their frame of reference is different to mine and a lot of the words they use I haven’t heard before. So I think, well, there’s a bigger gap between them and me than between me and Shakespeare frankly.

AL               You need subtitles for Millennials. But how do you feel about performances that change Shakespearian language?

JB               Well, I think it should be done minimally. I think you can translate the occasional word or phrase to make it more meaningful, but I think we should hang onto it as long as we can. As long as we keep speaking it and listening to it, it will remain alive.

                   If we don’t hear it enough or read it enough or speak it enough, then it becomes more and more arcane and remote from us and that’s why I think I encourage the constant performance of it. So people can hear and people will intuit at lot, even if they don’t understand every word, they will get a very large part of the general meaning of what is being said.

AL               So your book, Some Achieve Greatness, comes out of a series of corporate talks that you’d given and drawing lessons from Shakespearean characters for leadership. I wanted to take you through a few of those characters, beginning with Henry V and I thought that before we lead into your lessons, I might get you just to read a passage, perhaps the one the night before the Battle of Agincourt?

JB               Yes certainly, I think this is a very good example of leadership, that’s why I included it in my book. It talks about getting out of your ivory tower and mingling with the troops, basically, and listening to what concerns them, what they’re anxious about.

                   So I’ll read the passage and then we can discuss what I can take from it. So this is the night before the Battle of Agincourt and Henry is walking around the camp of his soldiers and listening to what they’re talking about.

                   The poor condemned English, like sacrifices, by their watchful fires sit patiently and inly ruminate the morning's danger, and their gesture sad investing lank-lean, cheeks and war-worn coats presenteth them unto the gazing moon so many horrid ghosts. O now, who will behold the royal captain of this ruin'd band walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent, let him cry 'Praise and glory on his head!'

                   For forth he goes and visits all his host. Bids them good morrow with a modest smile and calls them brothers, friends and countrymen. Upon his royal face there is no note how dread an army hath enrounded him, nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour unto the weary and all-watched night, but freshly looks and over-bears attaint with cheerful semblance and sweet majesty, that every wretch, pining and pale before, beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.

                   A largess universal like the sun his liberal eye doth give to every one, thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all, behold, as may unworthiness define, a little touch of Harry in the night.

AL               Just superb, and what do you take from that?

JB               Well, I think that it’s knowing that good leadership is really caring about the people who you are working with and the people who are working for you. Understanding their concerns, listening to what ails them and spreading a cheerful optimism and confidence, especially at times of crisis. Get down to the factory floor, really mingle with the troops, don’t stand aloof. Play low status, be one of the gang, leading, but leading from the front as part of a team.

                   I think people will take tremendous encouragement from leaders who do that and get out there and don’t hide in their office or play status but really show great concern and really and truly listen to what concerns you.

AL               I feel as though in an age of email it’s harder than ever before for leaders to bestow a little touch of Harry in the night. People are so caught up in the tasks before them that walking the factory floor becomes something that they’d like to do but just don’t make time for.

JB               Well, then it’s up to them, isn’t it, to sort out their priorities. I think one has to do both, of course the emails, etc. etc. but you can build a fence around you, you can start to micromanage from a distance, and I think that’s very, very dangerous. People do really appreciate your mingling among them, talking to them, above all listening to them.

                   That human contact is so vital and I think that’s one of the things we need to find out about people working from home more and less office time, less camaraderie, less company culture. We haven’t seen yet what those ramifications will be, but I think that will be an interesting development in company culture in the future, that people won’t be in the office and chatting at coffee break and seeing the boss walking down the corridor. It will be all much more remote and whether or not that’s a good thing we’ll find out in the future.

AL               Yes, it’s hard to imagine people will pluck comfort from the looks of their boss on Zoom.

JB               Exactly, right.

AL               You talk also about Julius Caesar and about the way in which he’s both arrogant and overreaching but also trusting and generous and particularly his ability to judge character. I wonder if we might start with that passage in which Caesar notices Cassius watching from the side-lines and then speaks to Mark Antony.

JB               Yes, that’s a very interesting piece because we tend to think of Caesar as being aloof and arrogant and narcissistic, which indeed he was, but none of Shakespeare’s characters are that simplistic. They are all well rounded and have different sides to them. So as well as those faults, Caesar does have a very shrewd eye, he’s a good judge of character and he can sense danger when it’s around him.

                   So he spots Cassius in the crowd and he says to Mark Antony, let me have men about me that are fat. Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look, he thinks too much, such men are dangerous. He reads much. Such men as he are never at heart's ease whiles they behold a greater than themselves, and therefore are they very dangerous.

                   And then he goes on to add, I rather tell thee what is to be fear'd than what I fear, for always I am Caesar.

                   So his arrogance does flash out there, his narcissism like, they can’t touch me, I’m not afraid of anybody, but he has betrayed just a little earlier his suspicions of conspiracy.

AL               What do you take in leadership terms from Caesar?

JB               Well, I think Shakespeare for his own purposes really gives Caesar a pretty bad rap. Caesar was venerated throughout the Renaissance as one of the Nine Worthies of Antiquity, a model of integrity and virtue, but Shakespeare deliberately makes him just verging on senility, vain, arrogant, narcissistic and therefore ripe for downfall.

                   I think the lessons one can learn from Caesar are, first of all, know when your time is up. Shakespeare does exaggerate Caesar’s age, in fact he wasn’t that old when he was killed, I think he was 52 maybe. So Shakespeare deliberately pushes the point that he’s past his prime, he should step down, he shouldn’t be looking for further glory and honours. How much do you need, when is enough not sufficient? How much more do you want in terms of adulation particularly.

                   And also, I think Caesar’s aloofness and removedness is a fault. Unlike Henry V who plays low status, mingles with the troops, Caesar keeps himself very much aloof and looks to establish a kind of a semi-divine status for himself. So I’d say that arrogance is one of the greatest faults in leadership and has many manifestations in terms of not listening, in terms of giving people short shrift, disregarding what their opinions are, refusing to delegate. All of those things are betrayals of arrogance and I think arrogance is one of the worst faults a leader can exhibit.

AL               You’ve played Richard III a number of times and I think you’ve said before that Richard III is one of the easier Shakespeare characters to play, if that can be said. And you have a passage in your book from Richard III finally facing the inevitability of his eternal damnation.

JB               Yes, Richard III is an easy character in the sense that he was fairly uncomplicated. I wouldn’t say one-dimensional, but he does tell you exactly what he and what he’s feeling, and he’s determined to be a villain, there’s no sort of subtlety about that. I think there’s a sketch for Macbeth that does similar actions, is similarly murderous but is so conscience stricken and becomes an insomniac and more and more paranoid as the play goes on.

                   Richard doesn’t quite get that far but nevertheless I think this particular speech is a sketch for what Macbeth goes through in that much more mature play. So this is Richard the night before the Battle of Bosworth, has a nightmare, all the ghosts of his victims come back to haunt him.

                   And he wakes from his nightmare and says, my conscience hath a thousand several tongues, and every tongue brings in a several tale, and every tale condemns me for a villain. Perjury, perjury, in the highest degree, murder, stern murder, in the direst degree. All several sins, all used in each degree, throng to the bar, crying all, guilty, guilty. I shall despair. There is no creature loves me, and if I die no soul will pity me.

Al                Oh, it’s black. What do you take from Richard? Is he just an example of what to be avoided?

JB               Yes, very much so. I think you have to look out for people’s private agendas. Richard’s great skill is in charming everybody and in the performance of it I think one has to remember that, that people are totally bewitched and charmed by him.

                   His sense of humour, his ability with wit and language are quite captivating and I think one just has to just be aware if you’re dealing with someone like Richard, what’s he up to? What’s his personal agenda? That calls for someone to be a fairly shrewd judge of character, and most of Richard’s victims are quite willingly deluded. They think there’s something in it for them, if they back him, they can get on his coat tails and get somewhere themselves and that’s a huge mistake. Because he doesn’t honour any of his promises, he will betray anybody in terms of getting to the top.

                   So he’s become a bit of a by-word really among politicians and social commentators. You just mention Richard III, and they automatically see exactly what traits you’re discussing or talking about.

AL               You speak about King Lear as being the play that you feel has never been done perfectly and a role which is extraordinarily difficult to play. I wonder if I might draw you to a passage that you quote in your book from King Lear which is a point at which he begins to get a sense of his own place in the world.

JB               Yes, certainly, Lear is I think the greatest, the most profound of all Shakespeare’s plays, the most challenging and therefore the most difficult to bring off. It goes so big and Lear, again, as a leader is entirely made up of narcissism and arrogance and self-regard and status. He has what he regards as some sort of divine status and it’s only when he’s reduced to being thrown out into the storm and loses all his authority, all his power that he comes to realise he’s just a man like anybody else.

                   And he says, when the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter, when the thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I found 'em, there I smelt 'em out. Go to, they are not men o' their words. They told me I was everything. 'Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.

AL               The phrase ague-proof, so beautiful, I think of all the other ways in which ague is used in that era and no one else would think to put the word proof behind it, it’s exquisite. But Lear himself, what do we take from him for those who are interested in leadership?

JB               I think listen to good advice is the main thing and again we come back to arrogance as being the main flaw in a leader, you have to listen to the experts, listen to good advice. Lear is surrounded by people who are wiser than he is, Kent, his most loyal supported offers him good advice. His daughter Cordelia speaks her mind and therefore is banished for speaking out. Even the Fool, who is his court jester, is smarter and wiser and can see what’s going on and tries to give Lear advice and he ignores all of them and I think hence his downfall.

                   If he had listened to any of them, he would have been a very different person and there wouldn’t be a play, frankly. And I think we see that all around us in leaders who refuse to listen to advice they don’t want to hear, whether it’s on climate change or vaccination or whatever.

                   You take someone like Donald Trump, doesn’t want to listen to anybody’s advice on anything, Donald always knows best, and I think that is perhaps a very, very major flaw in a leader. Go to the experts, go for the good advice, don’t play ball with people’s opinions but really take the good ones on board and act accordingly.

AL               You have a chapter in your book called Integrity and Humanity in which you talk about some of the characteristics of Brutus and there you include a passage from Mark Antony spoken over Brutus’ corpse. I wonder if I might get you to read that passage and then tell us a little about what Brutus says about great leadership.

JB               Yes, this is interesting because it comes at the very, very end of the play, it is one of the final speeches of the play and Mark Antony has been, of course, opposed to Brutus. He has hunted him down with his army and defeated him and Brutus commits suicide, but over his body Mark Antony delivers a very generous epitaph, I think.

                   This was the noblest Roman of them all. All the conspirators save only he did that they did in envy of great Caesar. He only in a general honest thought and common good to all, made one of them. His life was gentle, and the elements so mingled in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, this was a man.

AL               Would you like to be remembered in such a way?

JB               I couldn’t think of anything better. It’s an extraordinary, wonderful compliment and summation of Brutus’ good qualities.

                   I think Brutus is the noblest Roman of them all in that he does act according to his conscience even though it tortures him. Because he is called upon to assassinate one of his best friends, his mentor, Julius Caesar, a man he admires enormously but has become convinced that Caesar is a danger to the state and that the state is verging on a tyranny unless Caesar is removed. And he can see no other way except by Caesar’s assassination. So it’s a very, very wrenching decision for Brutus and one that he does eventually take in good faith.

AL               John, let me wrap our conversation up to a close with a few questions I ask each of my guests. What advice would you give to your teenage self?

JB               Oh my God, where do I start. I would say probably the most important thing would be to be gentle and fair and kind to people you grow up with. There’s a temptation to ride roughshod over competition in your attempted climb to the top but you’ll always regret unkindnesses or ungenerous things that you do.

AL               What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?

JB               Oh, now, there’s a huge volume there because I was brought up a Catholic, quite a devout Catholic until the age of about early 20s and then slowly to unpick it little by little. It took a lot of unpicking I must say, but I guess by now at the age of 80 I would call myself a humanist and one who doesn’t have any belief in any supernatural plane at all.

AL               I found it interest in Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, the way in which religion served as a solace for Anne Hathaway after the death of Hamnet. Have you read the book, do you have views on…?

JB               No I haven’t read that book, I’ve heard about it, but I haven’t got around to it yet. But of course it’s entirely conjecture, we know nothing about Anne Hathaway at all so that book is fiction after all. But of course it can be an informed fiction, I think.

AL               What I love about it is it has the most exquisite description of a mother’s pain at losing her child that I have ever read. Of course you’re bawling as you’re reading it but it also then suggests that that experience of losing Hamnet might have then propelled some of Shakespeare’s depths of tragedy. And the book is focussed around the play Hamlet, of course, but I was thinking about it when you were talking about Lear as well and the extent of the emotional range that Shakespeare is able to implant in King Lear.

                   Flipping around, when you are most happy?

JB               When I’m happiest, well, I think this will be a very common one, when I’m with my entire family some time like Christmas or a big family birthday or celebration when I have my daughters and all the grandchildren and everybody in the family around. That’s when I think, this is what life’s really all about.

AL               Does the Bell family put on performances at that stage?

JB               I’m afraid they do, there’s no discouraging people from performing. And I think as they get older, they become a bit more self-conscious and performances are a bit more discreet, but when they’re very small they are absolutely wild and outrageous and at their most delightful.

AL               What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?

JB               Well, I do try to do a bit of meditation, I’m not very good at it, I take a long time for me to unwind and put my mind at peace. I do Pilates when I can, can’t right now at the moment of course. I have a dog who’s very active and he needs four walks a day and I’m grateful for that because without him I mightn’t get around to it.

AL               Do you have any guilty pleasures?

JB               Oh, look, it’s a very common one, I’m sure most people would have this one, dark chocolate. I know there should be a limit to it, but I find it very hard to draw the line when that limit has been reached.

AL               And finally, John, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?

JB               That’s a hard one, I can’t think of any one person. I can think of a gallery of people going from back to certain schoolteachers, some of the older actors I’ve worked with whom I learned not just my craft but learned how to behave in the rehearsal room, how to be a gentleman in the workplace. A couple of people I owe a lot to in that area, and a couple of people I’ve come across just as neighbours and as friends who have taught me a lot about generosity and caring for each other. So there’s no one person but I’m grateful to a whole gallery of them.

AL               John Bell, Australian living treasure and thespian extraordinaire, thanks so much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.

JB               Thank you very much, Andrew, it’s been a pleasure.

AL               Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion, I reckon you’ll love past interviews with Sheridan Harbridge and Frank Ostaseski. We’ve just passed our 150th episode so we’re asking listeners to fill in a three-minute survey to help us improve the podcast. You can find the survey link in the show notes.

                   Next week we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.