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Sat February 5, 2011
Theater

No Fooling: 'Earnest' Star Makes One Formidable Lady

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:26 am

As one of the finest classical actors of his generation, Brian Bedford has donned all manner of period costumes. These days he's wearing ladies' stockings — along with Victorian dresses and some outrageous hats — as the imperious Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's comedy of manners The Importance of Being Earnest. The show is back on Broadway through July 3, in a production that Bedford directed as well.

The transformation begins about an hour and a half before the show; Bedford arrives at the theater in casual street clothes — sweater, sweatpants — and quickly slips into a tie-dyed T-shirt and robe. A wig cap goes on.

And then, in a process that takes an hour or maybe a bit more, the distinguished 75-year-old actor transforms himself into one of the theater's iciest and funniest characters — talking all the while, on one recent Wednesday, about how he came to direct and star in this production, first mounted at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada two years ago.

It was artistic director Des McAnuff's idea to have Bedford do double duty, but the actor wasn't immediately onboard.

"I read it about two or three times, you know, before I gave McAnuff the decision," Bedford says. "And I saw, during the first reading, that Lady Bracknell was a wonderful part."

Indeed, the lady in question gets some of theater's most hilariously biting lines. "To lose one parent," she tells an orphan, "may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness!"

Wilde's satire is a sendup of late-19th century society folk, and a subversive one, too, Bedford notes.

"But although he saw them as being extremely stupid people — and funny people — of course, they weren't that to themselves."

You can't wink at the audience, in other words. You've got to play these people straight.

'More Than Halfway There'

When it comes to discovering a character, though, it's not entirely about getting into someone else's head. Sometimes it's about what's on your head. Clothes make the man, as they say.

"You know something? They really do make this woman." Bedford gestures at his elaborate wardrobe. "You can see the frocks there. When you get into those things and you get all this stuff on and you get the wig on, you are more than halfway there."

The actor says he's developed his Lady Bracknell from watching and knowing some of the grandes dames of the stage — Maggie Smith and Irene Worth among them. And as he steps into his long skirt, high-collared lace blouse and beaded jacket, Bedford could well be their big-boned sister. But there's one more element to the costume.

"The hat is the cherry on top of the sundae," he says. "And that completes the transformation."

It takes two people — and quite a lot of pins — to get designer Desmond Heely's feathered hat settled atop Bedford's wig. As Bedford practices some of his first-act lines just before going onstage, it's clear that now he is Lady Bracknell in all her terrible, haughty splendor — "a Gorgon," as one of Wilde's characters describes her, "without being a myth."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Im Scott Simon.

As one of the finest classical actors of his generation, Brian Bedford has donned all manner of period costumes. But these days, hes wearing ladies stockings but along with Victorian dresses and outrageous hats, as the imperious Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wildes comedy of manners, "The Importance of Being Earnest."

Mr. Bedford is directing the Broadway production, as well. And reporter Jeff Lunden spent some time with him as he prepared to take the stage.

JEFF LUNDEN: About an hour and half before the Wednesday matinee, Brian Bedford arrives at the American Airlines Theatre to become Lady Bracknell. He quickly slips out his casual street clothes sweater, sweatpants and into a tie-dyed T-shirt and robe.

Mr. BRIAN BEDFORD: (Actor-Director, "The Importance of Being Earnest"): The transformation begins.

LUNDEN: So whats the first that thing you do, after you get into your tie-dyed T-shirt?

Mr. BEDFORD: The first thing is whats happening right now. Nellie prepares my hair for the wig. I get into a wig cap, cause the wig cap goes underneath the wig.

LUNDEN: And for the next hour or so, bit by bit, the distinguished 75-year-old actor turns into one of dramatic literatures iciest and funniest characters.

Bedfords make-up is all laid out on the dressing table and he painstakingly applies it himself.

Mr. BEDFORD: Up until about a week ago, a very good make-up man did this. And then he tutored me and taught me how to do it. Now I do it myself. And I kind of like it. Its sort of a relaxing kind of preparation, you know? Its also like doing a painting, except its on your face. Its kind of fun, youll see.

LUNDEN: And while Bedford paints his face, he talks about how he came to direct and star in this production, which was first done at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada two years ago.

It was artistic director Des McAnuffs idea to have Bedford do double duty with Oscar Wildes farce.

Mr. BEDFORD: I read it about two or three times, you know, before I gave McAnuff the decision. And I saw, during the first reading, that Lady Bracknell was a wonderful part.

Mr. BEDFORD: (as Lady Bracknell) To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose both, looks like carelessness.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEDFORD: I know its a satirical farce. Oscar is sending up society people of 1895, and in rather a subversive way. But although he saw them as being extremely stupid people and funny people of course, they werent that to themselves. And so I thought that was the way into it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEDFORD: (as Lady Bracknell) Mr. Worthing, I must confess I feel somewhat bewildered by what you have just told me. To be born or, any rate, bred in a handbag...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEDFORD: (as Lady Bracknell) ...whether it had handles or not...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BEDFORD: (as Lady Bracknell) ...seems to me to display a contempt for the ordinary decencies of family life that reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Once Bedford finishes applying his make-up, he goes through two pre-show rituals. First, one of the actors gives him a neck and back rub. Then, Sara Topham, who plays Gwendolen Lady Bracknells daughter comes in to put on his false eyelashes.

Ms. SARA TOPHAM (Actor): For some reason, Brian has decided that he trusts me.

Mr. BEDFORD: On and off stage.

Ms. TOPHAM: On and off stage.

Mr. BEDFORD: Weve worked together an awful lot.

Ms. TOPHAM: A lot. And this is what I always say to people, that Brian Bedford has played my fiance, my father and oops and my mother.

LUNDEN: In Wildes comedy of errors, two young women, Cecily and Gwendolen, think to their bewilderment, that theyve fallen in love with the same man, named Ernest.

Ms. TOPHAM: (as Gwendolen Fairfax) This is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at half past five. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. TOPHAM: (as Gwendolen Fairfax) I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: After Sara Topham leaves, hair and wig supervisor Nellie Laporte returns and carefully places a large wig of grey curls on Bedfords head.

So, you know they say that clothes make the man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: And Im assuming that...

Mr. BEDFORD: No, do you know something? They really do make this woman. Well, you can see the frocks there. When you get into those things - and you get all this stuff on and you get the wig on - you are more than halfway there.

LUNDEN: Bedford says hes developed his Lady Bracknell from watching and knowing some of the grande dames of the stage; Maggie Smith and Irene Worth, among them. And as he steps into his long skirt, high-collared lace blouse and beaded jacket, he could well be their big-boned sister.

Still, theres one more element to the costume.

Mr. BEDFORD: The hat is the cherry on top of the sundae, and that completes the transformation.

LUNDEN: Well, not entirely. Bedford says he spends the 20 minutes before his first act entrance going through all his lines, getting the voice just so.

Mr. BEDFORD (as Lady Bracknell): Good afternoon dear Algernon. I hope you are behaving very well. That's not quite the same thing. In fact, the two things rarely go together. Good afternoon, Mr. Worthing.

LUNDEN: The Importance of Being Earnest with Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell will be on Broadway through July 3rd.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: And to see a slide show of Brian Bedford becoming Lady Bracknell, you can go to our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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