Enoch Arden: An Archaic Awakening

Living national treasure, actor John Bell AO OBE, discusses the challenge and delight of staging the 19th century romantic epic Enoch Arden alongside celebrated pianist Simon Tedeschi.

Bell and Tedeschi had never met before deciding to collaborate on this performance of Enoch Arden. Luckily, their reputations preceded one another.

“He rang me out of the blue,” says Bell of his first interaction with Tedeschi. “We didn’t know each other. We knew who each other were, but had never met. He just rang me one day and said, ‘Do you want to do this thing with me?’ So we had a coffee and talked about it.”

This quick introduction resulted in a speedy turnaround of a studio production of Enoch Arden for the ABC, followed by a national tour, of which the Adelaide performance will be the last.

Enoch Arden is a romantic epic penned by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1864 and 33 years later German composer Richard Strauss set the poem to music, for voice and piano. Put plainly, Bell recites the story, while Tedeschi performs the music. It’s a seemingly simple affair, but one that has elicited a strong reaction from audiences thus far, as Bell explains.

“I wasn’t sure how they’d go,” says the founder of Bell Shakespeare Company. “It’s such an archaic piece. No-one knows much about it, and no one does it very much, so I wondered what people would make of this. People are very moved by it and quite excited by the unusual form. It’s not a very common thing these days to have poetry and music combined in a recital form.”

While the piece is certainly “archaic”, as Bell puts it, the story is a timeless one of courage, loss and the self-sacrifices made for love.

“It’s about two men who love the same girl, set in 19th century England,” says Bell. “One of them marries her; they settle down and have children. Then he goes away and gets shipwrecked on an island for 10 years. In the meantime the other guy says, ‘He’s never going to come back, so why don’t you marry me?’ Finally, she gives in and marries the other guy. Then, the first one comes back. He decides, having seen how happy they are, that he won’t reveal his identity, and lives alone in solitude, not so much in despair but joyful that she’s happy and that the family is secure.”

While Bell has performed many times with live musical accompaniment, notably with the Melbourne and Sydney Symphony orchestras (“It’s really exciting to be onstage with a full symphony orchestra blasting away. It’s a tremendous feeling.”), he says this endeavour is a different kettle of fish.

“It’s a storytelling thing. I don’t try to characterise it because it’s not that sort of dialogue. It’s a narrative. All the emotion in the words is very strongly echoed in the music, because the music plays alongside or underneath or in-between the narrative.”

John Bell AO OBE (Photo: Naomi Hamilton Photography)

With his words so intimately tied to Tedeschi’s playing, Bell says he has none of the room to move as he would in a typical stage production, but enjoys the challenge presented by this strictness of form.

“That’s quite a good thing, really,” Bell says. “You have to conjure up the emotion and hit it on the right note. It’s a bit like singing, I suppose. You have to work together with the accompanists. You can’t just go off on your own.”

Having enjoyed the process and reaction to Enoch Arden thus far, Bell says he’s looking forward to working with Tedeschi again.

“We get on well and Simon is good company. So now we’re looking for further projects to do.”

Enoch Arden
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
Saturday, July 15, 1.30pm and 7.30pm
adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au

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