Bell Directs Bell

3 July 2012 | 11:16 am | Dave Drayton

"Strong women tend to be a feature, and it could be to do with the fact that Queen Elizabeth herself was such a commanding figure, and the figurehead of the whole country, and such an outstanding personality that I think plays."

There have been some strong women in Bell Shakespeare's productions of late – Kate Mulvany in particular comes to mind with her portrayal of Cassius in last year's production of Julius Caesar, and her show-stealing Lady Macbeth, which graced Sydney stages in March and April of this year.

“It's not conscious, actually,” says Bell Shakespeare's Artistic Director John Bell of the trend. “Maybe subconscious,” he laughs, as an afterthought. “It certainly isn't a conscious decision although we do try and look at the whole programme and say what roles are there for women in the season – and are there parts for women directors, women designers? Let's try and keep the gender balance as equal as we can, which is difficult of course with classical plays because they were all written for men, by men, to be performed by men, so there's an inbuilt gender imbalance that we try to correct.

“But I also think that in all of Shakespeare's later plays, and plays of this Jacobean period, strong women tend to be a feature, and it could be to do with the fact that Queen Elizabeth herself was such a commanding figure, and the figurehead of the whole country, and such an outstanding personality that I think plays – either consciously or unconsciously – reflected her. A bit like a sort of Margaret Thatcher, you know, someone really strong and dominating, I think it filtered down.”

Continuing the conscious/unconscious trend then, another strong woman will be portrayed in Bell's upcoming production, The Duchess Of Malfi, a play Bell says he has wanted to direct since he first read it while at university, by none other than John's daughter Lucy.
“I think with Jacobean tragedy it has a sort of horror movie aspect to it which is very striking – Shakespeare's final plays do too, like King Lear, Hamlet, Macbeth; they've all got that sort of horror element in them, witches and ghosts and murder and treachery and so on, you know, dastardly deeds. Duchess falls into that genre. It's very unblinking, it's very direct, it's like Tarantino kind of violence and blackness, there's no gloves. That's always appealed to me, as well as the sort of exotic psychological torment that goes on in the play. It's quite cruel in the way that people are treated, but it's highly flamboyant and theatrical so there's nothing depressing about it. It's people resisting the horror rather than succumbing in it, and the main character, the Duchess herself, is a model of resilience and integrity in a very corrupt world and that image appeals to me enormously.

“Also the whole issue of a woman being told by the patriarchy what she can and can't do with her body; the Duchess' two brothers, one's a judge, one's a cardinal, so you've got the law and the church both saying what you can and can't do with your body, with your life, with your sexuality – I think that will resonate most strongly because that's common of course to all cultures and is still full of issues for us right now.”
Despite all this appeal, Bell admits The Duchess Of Malfi was initially lumped in the 'too hard' pile. “It's a very big show, big cast, and quite a complicated plot, and I thought there's no way, really, that I could put this on because it wouldn't have great box office expectations. People don't know it, don't know the play, so it's high box office risk.”
However, a taught new version of the script courtesy of Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman brought it within the realms of possibility and, according to Bell, enhanced the tension and impact of John Webster's originally blunt poetry.
“This version came along from Ailsa and Hugh that reduced the play down to just six actors and cut extraneous characters, cut some of the sub plot stuff and just condensed it to a very chamber piece, just concentrating on the main story, and made it very powerful – and it made it affordable. We were able to do it with a small company, which is a consideration. Also it really intensified the story and made it much more accessible. We're doing it in a modern dress, a contemporary setting, and as a very claustrophobic chamber piece.”

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The Duchess Of Malfi runs from Friday 6 July until Sunday 5 August at the Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre.