You’d be hard-pressed to find an actor more steeped in the classical tradition than Brian Bedford. The 76-year-old trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts with the likes of Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney, shared a stage with John Gielgud, and made a made a home at the prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, where he has directed and acted in 27 seasons. Bedford has also spent his fair share of time on Broadway in shows like Five Finger Exercise, The Misanthrope, Timon of Athens and The School for Wives, for which he won a Tony Award. Bedford is now back on the boards winning accolades—not to mention his seventh Tony nomination—playing the imperious Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, which he also directed. Broadway.com chatted with Bedford about the challenges of acting and starring in a play, how he found Lady Bracknell’s voice and why, career-wise, playing a woman was his final frontier.
Why did you want to do The Importance of Being Earnest?
It was really [Stratford Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director] Des MacAnuff’s brain child. I was reading all these 17th, 18th, 19th century plays looking for something that would turn me on, and then Des came and said, "Stop reading, direct Earnest and play Lady Bracknell" I thought it was a very shocking idea, so I said, “I don’t think so Des.” Then I read it several times and quite soon I thought Lady Bracknell was a delightful part.
Why did he think you should play her?
He didn’t say why; I supposed it’s a questionable compliment! But I started to see it was a marvelous part, and more importantly I started to see possibilities that were different from how I’d seen the play done before, which were rather tiresome. Strangely I wasn’t a huge fan of the play, but I hadn’t seen what I thought was a very good production. [Wilde] broke all the rules of the theater when he wrote this play, and now we have the marvelous privilege of pretending we invented these wonderful words. All the work I’ve ever done has to do with language, so this is a real feast for me.
What are the biggest challenges in being both the star and director of the show?
The biggest challenge is that you have to allow enough time to prepare very thoroughly. Not only have you got to know the play backwards, you also have to get the direction of yourself over and done with by the time you get to rehearsal and start directing other people. The play I did before Earnest was King Lear, and I played him and directed it. Earnest wasn’t easy but it certainly wasn’t the huge gigantic Alpine mountain that you have to climb for King Lear.
That’s quite a departure, to go from Lear to Lady Bracknell!
It is! Though come to think of it, I suppose they do have things in common.
Is your Lady Bracknell modeled on anyone in particular?
The big deal in finding my way into the part was to find her voice. I went in quite a few directions with that. At one point I was sounding like Her Majesty, the Queen and that would have been kind of funny, but I found it was too limiting, I didn’t want it to be distracting that it was doing an impersonation of the queen.
What do you love about playing this character?
When we’ve finished our run here I’ll have played it 300 times or more, and I’m telling the absolute truth when I say there hasn’t been one performance that I haven’t just absolutely adored doing. I love every word that she says, and the way she says things just absolutely thrill me. It’s outrageous and absurd but it just appeals to me. When I accepted this part, I accepted it seriously as a challenge to play a person of the opposite sex.
Had you ever played a woman before?
I never had. I’ve played a lot of parts that were very difficult for little old me to encompass and make real, but this is a fascinating challenge.
So was playing a woman like you last your last acting frontier?
That’s right. It’s a jokey thing that I’ve said many times, “What do you do after you’ve played King Lear? Obviously Lady Bracknell.” That’s a silly thing to say, but there’s something in it. You need something utterly different and contrasting but having a similar kind of challenge, and I found that in her.
How long does it take you to become Lady Bracknell?
It takes me about an hour and 20 minutes, I do my own makeup and then my sweet lady Nelly puts my wig on, and then my sweet dresser Cat puts my clothes on then it takes two people to put the hats on! The angle of the hats is very important.
She’s got quite the lavish outfits; are they comfortable on stage?
They were, until this recent spell of very hot, humid weather and then I had a bit of problem. My red dress is rather like acting under a Morrocan rug.
It must be validating to get a Tony nomination for your efforts! How is awards season treating you?
It’s jolly nice. It’s been a wonderful experience and it’s very flattering and satisfying to be nominated for a Tony, although this is the seventh time it's happened to me.
So are the Tonys now old-hat?
No pun intended? No, you’re always thrilled when they announce the nominations and your name is amongst them, every time.