John Bell will be saying goodbye to Canberra, at least in his long-time role as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, with the company's first production in its 25th year, William Shakespeare's comedy As You Like It.
Speaking of the company's association with the nation's capital, Bell said: "For 25 years, we've been coming every year, sometimes three times a year."
For the first few years, productions were staged in the Canberra Theatre, but moved when the more "intimate and sympathetic" Playhouse was built, he said.
"It's a beautiful theatre."
Now that he was in his mid-70s and the company was well established, Bell decided to hand over the reins to co-artistic director Peter Evans, who directed As You Like It.
Bell's Canberra swansong is the role of Jaques, the cynical commentator, who has the noted "All the world's a stage" speech.
Evans said the play, as well as that speech, was "a celebration of the theatre as a metaphor for life" and that its forest setting was a psychological space rather than a literal one.
"It's a state of mind, a place where people find themselves."
Adding to the fantasy feel, he said As You Like It was also the Shakespearean play with the most songs and composer Kelly Ryall had written an eclectic mix of tunes – rock'n'roll, blues, even a lullaby – to accompany the lyrics.
In the play, Rosalind (Zahra Newman) and Orlando (Charlie Garber) meet and fall in love but are both forced, separately, to leave the city in which they live. Rosalind disguises herself as a man, Ganymede, and in this guise befriends Orlando and teaches him – and some of the other characters – about the true nature of love.
Garber said Orlando was "more of an innocent", with a romantic view of relationships.
Newman said Orlando thought love was about "poetry, music and magic without any of the bitterness and tears that come along with it, the real stuff" and through Rosalind's playing "Ganymede", both lovers could learn and grow.
Bell will direct one last Sydney-only Bell Shakespeare production, The Tempest. He will then take on a role in a Chekhov play for another company and direct an opera or two next year.
Bell said he was proud of the company's theatrical record – it's played to more than 2 million people in theatres – as well as its educational work.
More than 70,000 school students have seen tour productions and the company has also held workshops in Indigenous communities and juvenile justice centres.
"That's a vital part of our work. I'm very proud of that."
He was confident the company would be in good hands as he pursued new challenges.
As You Like It is on at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, from April 7 to 12 and 14 to 18. Tickets $35-$79. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.
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