John Bell AO AM OBE b1940

John Bell

Born in Maitland, NSW, in 1940 and educated at University of Sydney.

The Bell Shakespeare Company was launched in 1990 with Hamlet and The Merchant Of Venice (with Bell as Shylock).


John Anthony Bell, actor, director and ‘Australian Living Treasure’ was born in Maitland, NSW, in 1940. Educated at University of Sydney, he acted with Sydney University Dramatic Society and made his professional debut in 1963 in the Old Tote Theatre Company’s first production, The Cherry Orchard. In 1964 he was a sensational Henry V, with Anna Volska as Katherine, in an innovative Adelaide Festival tent presentation. The Sydney Morning Herald called him ‘a possible Olivier of the future’.

After training with the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, Bell joined The Royal Shakespeare Company for four years and was made an Associate Artist. He returned to Sydney in 1970 as Head of Acting at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. That same year he produced the landmark Australian musical burlesque The Legend of King O’Malley and co-founded the Nimrod Theatre Company. He was its artistic director, director and principal actor until 1985.

At Nimrod Bell presented many significant Australian plays, such as David Williamson’s Travelling North, The Club and The Removalists, Peter Kenna’s A Hard God, Jim McNeil’s How Does Your Garden Grow and Ron Blair’s The Christian Brothers. Other highlights included a dra¬matic adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, The Venetian Twins, an Australian musical based on the Goldoni classic, and the Bernstein musical Candide. Bell also introduced a distinctive Australian Shakespeare style, with memorable productions of Measure for Measure, Much Ado About Nothing and Macbeth.

In 1989 Bell played Duke in Big River, his first major role in a musical. Shortly after this he was invited by the late Tony Gilbert, a Shakespeare-loving philanthropist, to establish a national touring organisation presenting Shakespeare in a popular style.

The Bell Shakespeare Company was launched in 1990 with Hamlet and The Merchant Of Venice (with Bell as Shylock), followed by Richard 3 (with Bell in the title role) and Romeo And Juliet. In 1993 the Federal government matched a challenge grant of $250,000 from Gilbert so that the company could be established on a firm footing. Dedicated to the ideal of uninhibited access to the great classics for as many Australians as possible, Bell Shakespeare presents its broad range of productions and education activities regardless of geographic location. As Australia’s national touring theatre company, it tours every state and territory with creativity and audacity.


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