Food News

John Bell: how I eat

The actor, director and Australian National Treasure on his quest to become vegan, messing around with paint and Spaghetti Shakespeare.

John Bell

Pierre Toussaint

Do you love or hate to cook, John?

I’m one of those men who has been very spoilt by a mother and a wife who are extremely good cooks. But when I’m on tour I have to manage on my own, so I have five or six recipes that I can depend on. Egg on toast, for instance.

What kind of an eater are you?

I don’t like fancy food and I’m heading towards being a vegan. I haven’t quite got there yet, but when you get used to it, it’s very, very satisfying.

You grew up in Maitland, New South Wales. What was in your lunchbox?

This was in the ’50s, just after the war, so it was generally white bread with a slice of cheddar cheese and a lettuce leaf. 

Who led you to the theatre?

A couple of fantastic English teachers at school. They loved theatre, particularly Shakespeare, and encouraged me to be an actor. I wasn’t much chop at school work or sport, but theatre was my great salvation.

**As founder of Bell Shakespeare you were instrumental in an Australian Shakespeare style dubbed “Spaghetti Shakespeare”. How do you feel about the name?

** I always wanted to bring Shakespeare into focus for an Australian audience and without changing the words or the play, reflect ourselves, rather than trying to imitate foreign characters. I prefer Blue Gum or Wattle Leaf Shakespeare personally, but it’s certainly attempting to be very local.

What’s your fondest memory from your 25 years as director of Bell Shakespeare?

I always found touring the greatest thrill. People in remote areas and the outback were so appreciative when you came to town with a big show. I was very fond of Wagga Wagga. I loved the theatre there, and the ladies would turn up with tea and scones for all the actors at interval.

How do you define a good audience?

You become very, very sensitive of people whispering or coughing, or looking at their texts during the show. A good audience doesn’t do any of that. They’re there and present and, most likely, they paid for their tickets.

What’s your favourite scene that plays out around the table?

The one that’s hardest to beat is Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The character of Titus serves up to the Queen the bodies of her sons, chopped up and made into a pie. It’s only after she’s eaten it that he tells her what was inside.

How do you keep things fresh with each performance?

You compete with yourself and say, “I can make it more truthful, more immediate, more spontaneous. I can do it better than last night.” If you say that every night, then the performance will only get better.

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Does being on Australia’s list of Living Treasures for more than a decade put pressure on you?

Every time you make an appearance they say, “Here’s John Bell. He’s a National Treasure.” You have to live up to that, be a role model for people, and do the right thing by everybody – not bring the industry into ill repute.

What’s the first thing you do when you touch down in a new city?

I head to the art gallery. I’m a great aficionado of art.

We hear you’re a painter, too.

I’m very much an amateur. I’d like to do more, but I get so caught up in various projects that I don’t get very much time.

What do you love to paint?

The landscape at Killcare, where we have a house about an hour and a half out of Sydney. The angophora trees, those wonderful red gums, are so twisty and strange.

Do you have a favourite Sydney restaurant?

Lucio’s in Paddington. It’s a real treasure trove of art and I really trust whatever Lucio recommends. He’s a very, very good host.

Do you snack during the day?

I don’t like to snack. It upsets your balance and you need to stay that little bit hungry when you’re on stage. A cup of tea is plenty.

What about when you come off stage?

I like to tuck into some brie with crackers and a glass of red wine. That’s a very nice way to finish off the evening.

Your production of Carmen is playing now at the Sydney Opera House. What’s the vibe of this version?

I approached it more like doing a Broadway show than an opera. It’s set somewhere like Cuba, so it has a very Latin American feel. People have come up to me and said they’ve seen Carmen so many times and weren’t expecting to be surprised, but were.

What’s the best costume in the Opera Australia cupboard?

The stuff they made for Joan Sutherland is pretty hard to beat. She was quite a large lady and not easy to dress, but they found ways of taking advantage of her height and stature and made her look extraordinarily magnificent.

What excites you about food in Australia?

If you go to most cities in the world you eat what’s local, but here you eat what’s absolutely international. It certainly wasn’t the case when I was a kid.

Can you share one of your earliest food memories?

I remember the first Chinese restaurant opening in Newcastle. People stood in the street to look through the window and watch people eat. My aunt was one of the first people who went. We all said, “What did you eat, Aunty?” and she said, “Bird’s nest soup.” We laughed for a fortnight.

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How is Australia’s performing arts scene holding up?

The standard of the work is very, very high. We can be very proud of that. But my plea would be for more facilities to workshop and develop new work. When funds get cut, theatres make safer and safer choices.

What kind of art is Australia hungry for?

They’re hungry for quality. Our audiences have likely seen the best in London, New York or Europe. They’re aware of how good theatre can be, so we can’t serve up second best.

What’s more satisfying, cinnamon buns or soliloquies?

If someone would write me a soliloquy where I could eat cinnamon buns while talking, that would be ideal.

John Bell’s production of Carmen runs until 23 March at Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. For tickets see

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