Theatre

Charisma and the classics

Stratford's Brian Bedford shows he can still cammand the stage

John Bemrose June 22 1998
Theatre

Charisma and the classics

Stratford's Brian Bedford shows he can still cammand the stage

John Bemrose June 22 1998

Charisma and the classics

Stratford's Brian Bedford shows he can still cammand the stage

Theatre

JOHN BEMROSE

It hangs in the entrance hall of actor Brian Bedford’s Stratford, Ont., cottage—a framed poster of Sir John Gielgud as Hamlet, staring moodily into the distance like some melancholy household god. It is early afternoon, and Bedford, clad in sandals, shorts and an untucked blue shirt, clearly has not been up for long. Cradling a bowl of breakfast cereal, he looks up at the portrait of the great English actor who has been his friend and mentor for almost 45 years. Currently launching his 17th season at the Stratford Festival—where he gives a scintillating performance in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing—Britishborn Bedford recently took time out to phone Gielgud on the occasion of his 94th birthday. “He complained he wasn’t feeling too well,” Bedford recalls. “And when I asked him what was wrong, he said he wasn’t getting enough work. He thought maybe he should change his agent.”

Bedford chuckles affectionately at the thought of the old actor still immersed in the fray. Bedford himself turns 63 this year, and can look back on an illustrious career of his own. After spending 16 years as a Broadway star (he won a Tony for best actor in 1971, for School for Wives, and last year was inducted into New York’s Theater Hall of Fame), he moved in 1975 to Stratford, a two-hour drive west of Toronto. There, he has steadily burnished a reputation as one of the finest classical performers on the continent. “He’s a charismatic actor with extraordinary range,” says former Stratford artistic director Robin Phillips, who was responsible for bringing Bedford to Canada. “He has this rare ability to share thought with the audience—to make the text of a play come clear and alive.”

At the festival, Bedford plays the reluctant suitor Benedick opposite 59-year-old Martha Henry’s Beatrice—a high-powered if unusual pairing, since Shakespeare’s battling lovers are usually portrayed by much younger actors (Bedford drolly refers to this production as “the geriatric Much Ado”). He played the same part at Stratford alongside Maggie Smith 18 years ago. Bedford still recalls Smith’s ferocious perfectionism, as well as the challenge of standing up to her incandescent stage presence. “God knows, when you’re up there with Maggie you have to do your best. Otherwise you disappear.” Anecdotes involving famous performers slip easily from Bedford, in the rich English tones that nearly 40 years in North America have not diminished. Settling into a large armchair—surrounded by the country antiques and career mementoes with which he has filled his sunny, high-ceilinged cottage—he projects the relaxed affability of a

man with little to prove. Handsome in a puggish, working-class way, he exudes an irrepressible youthfulness. His mop of hair shows little grey, while regular swimming and walking have kept him trim. There is the matter of those dark glasses, though. During a one-hour interview, they remain crookedly in place, hiding the brown eyes with their look of pained sadness that is so much a part of Bedford’s acting equipment. Perhaps exhaustion is taking its toll. Besides appearing in Much Ado, he is also directing Shakespeare’s difficult late romance, The Winter’s Tale, opening on June 23. Bedford says there have been many sleepless nights: “I’ve been working seven days a week, 18 hours a day. Sometimes the mind just won’t stop spinning.” With Bedford, theatre and stress have long been associated. He once declared that getting a production ready “involves a passage through hell.” It is perhaps ironic that the reason he got into theatre

in the first place was to escape the stress of an unhappy home. Born in 1935, he is the son of Arthur Bedford, a postman in Morley, Yorkshire, and his Irish wife, Bessie. Their marriage was a battleground—Bedford laconically remarks that “between them they recreated the AngloIrish wars.” As well, two of his brothers were terminally ill with tuberculosis. The small house was filled, he recalls, “with the smell of disinfectant and the sound of people retching into pots.” Bedford escaped reality by pretending to be a radio—he would sit behind the couch, reading out passages of The Radio Times in his best actorly voice. As well, there were annual visits to the Christmas pantomimes, and by 9 he was travelling alone to watch the repertory company in nearby Leeds. During the war, relief of another sort came from a cousin in Chicago, who sent the family care packages that included much-treasured movie magazines. “I fell in love with that whole suburban, Doris Day thing,” Bedford says. “I felt America was where I really belonged.”

A poor student, Bedford dropped out of school at 15, got a job and took the bus each evening to act with an amateur troupe. “I was making my way, but I was frightened too,” he says. “I had this strong Yorkshire accent, and I

œ was very self-conscious. Really, I was very insecure. I Most actors are. That’s why they want to spend their I lives pretending to be others.” But he had some success, g A local paper complimented him for a small role in Julius g Caesar. His first review read: “Bedford listens well.”

I In the early ’50s, the young actor won a scholarship to o London’s famous Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where his classmates included Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Albert Finney. ‘We were all from the North, all in the big city for the first time, all going absolutely mad,” Bedford says, relishing the memory of those harddrinking times. Upon graduation, he won a spot with the prestigious Liverpool Repertory Company. When Gielgud arrived in town with a touring version of Much Ado, Bedford wangled a dinner with him, and their long friendship began. A couple of weeks later, learning that Bedford was about to play Hamlet, Gielgud wrote him a 12-page letter of advice which Bedford still has. And when the two appeared together in The Tempest in Stratford-on-Avon, the great actor gave Bedford private verse-speaking lessons in his dressing room. “I’m still passing on what John taught me, to my cast in The Winter’s Tale,” Bedford says, adding, “And remember—he learned it from Harley Granville-Barker in the 1920s, when John was playing King Lear at the Old Vic. So we’re talking about a very long tradition—that’s one of the glories of the theatre.”

In those early days of his career, Bedford got to meet some of the stars from

a fading era of European glamor. He once spent a long evening with Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich, sitting spellbound as they reminisced about their careers. But his own future lay in the New World. In 1959, he travelled to the United States with a hit production of Peter Shaffer’s first play, Five Finger Exercise, directed by Gielgud. Sailing into New York harbor, Bedford felt he had come home. For the next 16 years, he recalls, he “lived the very pleasant life of a successful Broadway actor. I did movies and TV and won the Tony and stuff. I had a nice flat in the city and a lovely house and farm up the Hudson Valley.”

Then, in 1975, Phillips asked him to work at Stratford. Bedford accepted, and remains convinced that the move “really has made my life. Stratford is the right place for me.” He credits Phillips with helping him unlearn what he calls “the English style of highly technical, under-emotional acting. Robin encouraged me to delve into my own resources, rather than copying somebody else’s.” Always a very good actor, Bedford developed into a supremely fine performer of the classics, excelling in roles as diverse as Tartuffe and Angelo in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. Among his greatest achievements was playing the title role of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens in 1991. As the disillu-

sioned aristocrat whose friends desert him when he loses his fortune, Bedford touched deep emotional chords with his uncanny combination of clarity and soulfulness.

Bedford says he doubts he could ever go back now to the grind of commercial theatre (which commonly demands eight performances a week, as opposed to three or four at Stratford). He seems well settled in his cottage, which he shares with his partner, actor Tim MacDonald. Notorious for working obsessively and taking little time off, Bedford says he is finally learning how to relax. Last year, in the off-season, he holidayed alone in Morocco—“I fell madly, passionately, soulfully in love with the place; now I have to go back again and see what that was all about.”

The actor says he is financially secure enough to retire in a couple of years, but doubts he will. The fact is, he loves acting, and the place he gets to when a performance is going well, too much. “You sort of aquaplane on the energy and interest of the audience,” he says. “It’s a very mystical communication.” Does he experience a kind of ecstasy then? Bedford pauses before answering, shaking his head behind those dark glasses. “No. But out there, where you know exactly what you are doing, you feel safe.” □