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Brian Bedford’s ‘Lady’ is a tiger

Reporting from New York

Brian Bedford likes to joke that after playing King Lear at the Stratford Festival, it was a natural progression to take on the role of Lady Bracknell, that gorgon of Victorian society, in the Oscar Wilde comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest” — in full drag.

But asked what his sequential roles might have in common, the actor pauses. “You know, I’ve never thought about it, but when Lear enters a room, that’s all that matters to him,” he says. “His presence is a very powerful influence on himself as well as everybody else. And there is something about that with Lady Bracknell. She knows how to fill a room.”

The same can be said of Bedford. At 76, he is a magnetic presence, sitting in a rented apartment in a high-rise on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, looking remarkably youthful for someone who embodies an acting tradition inherited from his onetime mentor, the late John Gielgud.

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A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Bedford chose to concentrate on the classics unlike his classmates Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole, and Alan Bates, who chose more contemporary parts. . The choice has paid off handsomely. After 27 years of starring roles at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada — where the actor is based and lives with his longtime companion, actor Tim MacDonald — Bedford is at the peak of an acclaimed career with the Roundabout Theatre revival’s of “Earnest,” which he has also directed.

His performance as Bracknell has been nominated for a Tony — an award he won in 1971 for “School for Wives” — and this month brings him his widest audience yet in a series of screenings around the world of “‘The Importance of Being Earnest’: Live in HD,” a collaboration of the Roundabout, L.A. Theatre Works, and By Experience.

“Brian’s magnificent performance gave us the confidence that even people who thought they knew ‘Earnest’ would be surprised,” says By Experience’s Julie Borchard-Young, who with her husband, Robert, created the digital company that has presented productions of the Metropolitan Opera and the National Theatre of Great Britain. The “Ernest” HD project is the brainchild of Susan Loewenberg, producing director of the nonprofit L.A. Theatre Works, who approached the Roundabout and By Experience last year after recording Bedford for audio productions of three Moliere comedies.

By Experience brought in director David Stern to film the production. In March, he positioned eight cameras in the theater over a series of three performances and “live cut” from a command truck parked outside the Roundabout. “The intent was to give the cinema audience the feeling that they are sitting in Row A,” Borchard-Young adds.

“It was totally painless,” says Bedford of the filming. He saw snippets of the film and proclaimed himself quite pleased for the most part, though he says he’s grateful that Stern pulled back from a close-up of him as Bracknell in one crucial exchange — “revoltingly overdone,” he called it — to a more distanced two-shot.

Critics found Bedford’s performance flawless when the production opened in January. Lady Bracknell, wrote New York Times critic Charles Isherhood, "… has never been more imperious, more indomitable — or more delectably entertaining — than in Mr. Bedford’s brilliant portrayal.”

That Bedford’s triumph should come in a play swathed in Victorian affluence and witty repartee is a vindication of sorts. He grew up in a dismal Yorkshire household, darkened by poverty, illness and his father’s suicide. Acting was a means of escape and after Bedford made his Broadway debut in 1959, in Peter Shaffer’s “Five Finger Exercise” directed by Gielgud, he never looked back. “I knew I wanted to have a British actor’s career but in America,” he says.

Bedford’s impressive portfolio of classics, however, had never included “Earnest” for the simple reason that he found it “tiresome.” Apart from the 1952 movie, memorable for Edith Evans’ Bracknell, Bedford says that he’d seen only misguided productions of the work with “people pouncing about and showing off.”

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The actor recalled that Gielgud once told him that the way into the style of the play was through “the seriousness” of one’s approach to it.

“Everybody has secrets, and everybody is pretending to be someone else,” says Bedford of the play, which is subtitled “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” “What Oscar was saying is that the people in charge of London society — and that was the world, as far as everybody was concerned — were extremely stupid and extremely hypocritical. They were willing to change their hidebound opinions and conservative values at the mention of hundred thousand pounds a year.”

After the style for his production was established, Bedford says that he undertook the part of Lady Bracknell with, well, a proper earnestness. He had some real-life models to draw upon, from the eccentric social lionesses he met early on in his career to his late friend Brooke Astor, the American doyenne. How to assert one’s power is the key, according to Bedford. And, indeed, in this production, it often takes a mere glance from Bedford’s icy blue eyes to bring the temperature in a room down to sub-zero. “You have to be careful how you dish out your power as Lady Bracknell,” he says. “You don’t want to do anything that she would consider vulgar.”

Bedford struggled to find the proper vocal pitch and timber for Bracknell. He says he sounded at first like Queen Elizabeth, and he repeats some of Bracknell’s lines in the fluty tones of Britain’s monarch. “It was kind of funny but ultimately too limiting. Bracknell has to have enough range so that she can swoop vocally. That was the big thing. And once I found the voice, it was incredibly freeing,” he says.

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That voice appears to be pitched in a neutered zone, neither feminine nor masculine; Bedford is adamant that there should not be a bit of camp or drag as part of Bracknell’s makeup. “You don’t want her to be too feminine, physically, but she is still a woman,” he says. “Mike [Nichols, the director] insisted to me, ‘Bracknell is a man.’ And I corrected him. ‘No, she is not a man. She is a woman. An idiosyncratic woman, an exasperating woman, a blinkered woman. But a woman nonetheless.”

For dates, times and locations of upcoming screenings of “The Importance of Being Earnest,” see https://www.roundabouttheatre.org/broadway/theimportanceofbeingearnest/hd/venues.htm#CA.

calendar@latimes.com


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