Bell Shakespeare To Tackle King Lear

For some years now I have purchased The Weekend Australian newspaper for its cultural magazine Review. Sometimes, one in every three or four editions will have a lengthy article concerning the theatre. In recent months however, we have been spoiled and the strike rate has been more like three in four.

Recently there has been essays on playwright Enda Walsh and Irish theatre, American actress Julianne Moore, the state of the arts in Sydney and New South Wales, 22 year-old English playwright sensation Polly Stenham, the strength of contemporary Russian theatre, the place of arts festivals in Australia and Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco.

This weekend John Bell, the founder of Australia’s national Shakespeare touring company, Bell Shakespeare, is interviewed on the eve of turning 70 and once again tackling the almighty role of King Lear. My personal love for Shakespeare began the day I opened King Lear in Year 11 Literature back at high school. From that day onwards, my interest in theatre accelerated at a rapid pace and even after reading Macbeth, Hamlet and most of the Bard’s other works, nothing in my opinion came close to the power of characterisation and playwriting that exists in Lear.

In fact, one of the reasons Lear is rarely seen these days on the stages of international theatre companies is because many quietly believe it to be “unstageable”. If not the play itself, then certainly the protagonist, Lear, King of Britain. Till the day I die, I will never forget the gaudiness, the campness and the grotesqueness of John Bell’s King Lear in Australia in 1998, directed by Barry Kosky.

Closer to home, Shakespeare is more relevant to me in the classroom. With a new group of Year 10 Drama students, I have placed them head-first into a Shakespearean monologue for their first assessment task at the beginning of the academic year. Their previous experience with Shakespeare has only been Romeo and Juliet last year in English class. Now, I have asked them to dive into the deep end of the pool head-on. Whilst they are definitely engaged (a sigh of relief), of course they are also bewildered, telling me Shakespeare’s use of words is so foreign to them (even after several lessons breaking the monologues into beats, reading plain language interpretations, doing research etc). From the article in Review, mentioned above, I have found my source of inspiration for my students from John Bell, himself:

Shakespeare is easier than anything else in that it’s memorable; the words are very beautiful. when I was young, I loved learning Shakespeare. It’s like learning a song or poem. It’s important to understand exactly what you’re saying, consult not just the footnotes, but dictionaries to get the meaning of the words, where they came from originally and how they differ today. Then it becomes easier. It’s helped by it’s rhythm and metre and rhyme.

I just walk around and around in circles with a book in my hands and repeat it over and over until it gets into my head. It’s growing into the role, like putting on clothes item by item until you’re fully inside it.

(John Bell)  Source: The Weekend Australian, 20-21 February 2010.

What better advice could I give to young students tackling Shakespeare in a Drama class for the first time? Perfect.

Link: Bell Shakespeare Company

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