Bell Shakespeare celebrates its 30th anniversary year with new explorations of the Bard’s best-known plays – Hamlet and The Comedy of Errors.
Bell Shakespeare Artistic Director Peter Evans’s production of Hamlet will be the company’s fifth presentation of the tragedy and the first to feature a female actor – Harriet Gordon-Anderson – in the title role. It plays the Sydney Opera House from February 29, 2020 before touring to Canberra and Melbourne.
“It felt really fitting to go back to Hamlet because it was the first production the company ever did,” says Evans, adding that, as in Bell Shakespeare’s production of Richard III with Kate Mulvany starring, the role isn’t gender-swapped, but played as written by a female actor.
“It allows me to just choose the actor I’ve been most interested in recently, regardless of gender,” Evans says. “A mentor of mine once said that when casting Hamlet, you have to be interested in the mind of the actor playing Hamlet. And I think Harriet is really interesting. She’s very, very smart, incredibly thoughtful, and very much on the front foot.”
Gordon-Anderson featured in Bell Shakespeare’s 2018 production of Moliere’s The Miser. Evans was also impressed by her performance in director Claudia Barrie’s Sydney premiere of You Got Older at Kings Cross Theatre.
“I remember really leaning into that play,” Evans recalls. “Harriet struck me as someone who was very comfortable being at the centre of the story. I think she has all the qualities you need to lead a company of actors through the play, and also she’s very strong and physically coordinated – which is important in a play that ends with a huge fight scene.”
Casting Gordon-Anderson will also skew the play younger, adds Evans. “Hamlet’s age is famously ambiguous – he can be anywhere from 19 to 30 or more – but Harriet’s will be a younger Prince than some of the others we’ve seen, which is interesting in a play in which you see young people suffering for the sins of their parents.”
Though the roles are yet to be cast, Gertrude will be a woman in her 40s, Evans adds. He imagines Claudius to be in his 30s. “It will be one of those sexy second marriages.”
Hamlet will be designed by Anna Tregloan and set in the Denmark of the early 1960s. “It’s that Grace Kelly period, when royalty was very cool,” says Evans. “And when you think about Denmark in that time, it’s often about that design-driven culture which is still so fashionable now.”
The Cold War was at its height, too, and it informs the deep background of the story. “It provides the exterior pressure on Elsinore, which is something that’s often quite hard to get across,” Evans says.
Bell’s nationally touring production, The Comedy of Errors, which features Julia Billington, will be directed by Janine Watson, who has worked regularly with the company as an actor and director in recent years.
“We were talking about what would be the next step with the company for her and The Comedy of Errors came up very quickly,” Evans says. “It’s a play she loves and has acted in at least once before.
“Janine will be great with this because it’s such a joyous, silly play and she has a particular interest in physical comedy, but it also has a really warm heart. In the end, it’s a story about reunion and it can be very moving. It seemed to me that Janine and The Comedy of Errors would be a really nice combination.”
To mark the company’s 30th anniversary, Bell Shakespeare will also present an exclusive event with the company’s founding father John Bell – One Man In His Time: John Bell and Shakespeare, described as a, “backstage pass to Bell’s life and his relationship with Shakespeare.”
“This is something we started talking about when we were doing The Miser,” Evans says. “It’s not anecdotes and war stories, the kind of thing you might expect. It’s more about what Shakespeare has meant to him over his lifetime and he also goes into particular speeches to talk about how they work and why they work. It’s going to be quite beautiful, actually.”
Outside of productions, Evans has been consumed by the company’s delayed relocation to the Pier 2/3 development at Walsh Bay and balancing the books.
The audience is very much on his mind, he says, on the eve of what is the most experimental production the company has mounted to date – Adena Jacobs’s staging of Titus Andronicus.
“It’s a bit of an outlier,” he chuckles. “But taking a risk has always been part of the company’s brief. There are certain things that we know our audience likes, particularly in regard to the settings of the plays – time and place, and costuming – but I don’t think we should ever get to the point where we have a house style.”
“For us, it’s always been about finding that Australian voice and having these works reflect contemporary Australia.”
Hamlet plays the Sydney Opera House from February 29, 2020
One Man In His Time plays the Sydney Opera House, August 28-29, 2020
The Comedy of Errors plays the Sydney Opera House from October 16, 2020