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As He Likes It

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As He Likes It

At 70, the Tony Award-winning Brian Bedford is keenly aware of the passage of time and the aging process, facts of life that make playing Jaques in "As You Like It" that much more personal. Twenty-eight years after he first tackled the wounded cynic, Bedford views the complex figure through a darker prism.

"Jaques is melancholy, we are told, but a younger man's melancholy is very different," notes the gray-haired, British-born veteran classical actor, sporting rimless glasses and looking professorial.

He meets with me in the Upper East Side apartment he is occupying throughout the run of the Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park production, slated to close July 17.

"That's what I found so interesting about doing the role this time," Bedford continues. "My perceptions are different. Jaques' 'seven ages of man' speech -- 'All the world's a stage,' ending with 'sans teeth...sans everything' -- is a bit more chilling for an older man who is suddenly seeing...." Bedford pauses.

"This has been a particularly rough year. Alan Bates, my closest friend, died. And I have another friend in California who is seriously ill. I think about him when I'm doing that speech. And I think about me -- not that I feel old. But the numbers can be overwhelming. It's as if you see them up large in CinemaScope." He adds, "There is something poignant about an older man playing Jaques and saying those lines -- 'sans everything.' "

Set in the Forest of Arden and awash in gender-bending and mistaken identity, "As You Like It" tells the jolly tale of horny lovers in search of each other and eternal nuptial joy. The contrasting Jaques, a permanent fixture in the forest, introduces a note of gloom. And Bedford's Jaques is indeed a multilayered malcontent: an ascetic hermit who has cultivated a veneer of indifference but continues to be interested in the paradoxes of life, agonizes over injured animals (an early environmentalist), and understands the impact his persona makes. Throughout, there is just a hint of amusement -- perhaps even self-mockery -- lurking beneath the surface.

"There is a self-mocking element in Jacques," Bedford concurs. "Without it, he'd simply be melancholy, and that's just boring. We all know you can be sad and depressed. Yet in certain company, it doesn't appear so. In fact, you're lively. That's what I love about playing Shakespeare. There's always the balance of the comedy and tragedy masks.

"I also love playing this older man who gets excited about learning something new from the evil duke, who has had a conversion. Jaques is still looking for himself. He doesn't know who he is. He's a mysterious guy with many secrets."

Bedford developed a backstory for Jaques, using experiences from his own life to give the character added dimension. But he won't reveal what they are: "They're too personal."

Bedford is friendly and forthcoming, yet a core of privacy remains. Something is not being disclosed. His lifelong passion for theatre and fascination with Shakespeare, however, are boldly evident. Erudite and well-read, he suggests that "Jaques represented a new phase in Shakespeare's writing, in some ways foreshadowing Hamlet." In preparation for the role, Bedford read "The Essential Anatomy of Melancholy," written by Robert Burton, a 17th-century English churchman and scholar.

Learning Gielgud's Technique

Bedford, who has appeared in 20 Broadway productions and has spent 24 seasons at the Stratford Festival of Canada, insists he has never taken a theatre role to which he couldn't relate. (Movies and television are different, he says, thanks to the financial compensation.) The roster of credits he has rolled up over his half-century career is undoubtedly a testimonial to his imaginative powers and, even more striking, his broad acting range.

In "London Assurance," at Roundabout Theatre Company, Bedford played Sir Harcourt Courtly, an arthritic old stiff who fancies himself a sexually dashing lad about town. In two contrasting Molière one-act comedies (also at Roundabout), he inhabited prig and buffoon to perfection. Before that he enjoyed a star turn in "Timon of Athens," strutting about the stage, a fatuous child-man transformed into a snarling misanthrope. And earlier, in "Two Shakespearean Actors," there was Bedford's spin on the real-life character of Charles Macready, a supercilious, conniving egomaniac.

Bedford stresses that there is no one role that most prepared him to play Jaques, aside from the dozens of Shakespeare productions he has appeared in. But "if you have lived a life in the theatre as I have, after a certain point you develop a technique, the ability to realize on stage what your mind has created. When you're a young actor you have wonderful ideas, but you don't have the technique to carry it into the theatre. That is the agony of being young.

"Technique is a complex coming together of all your abilities," he continues. "With Shakespeare you need a voice to communicate the nuances, energy, and complexity that's inherent. I was lucky. When I was 22, Peter Brook cast me to play Ariel in 'The Tempest' with John Gielgud, who played Prospero. Gielgud gave me one-on-one tutorials on verse speaking, which have been the basis for my technique. I learned the importance of introducing vocal variety. It's not superficial. The voice work incorporates internal work."

Looking back over a career that has brought him six Tony nominations for best actor -- he won the award for Molière's "The School for Wives" -- as well as Obie, Outer Critics Circle, and New York Drama Desk awards, Bedford admits that Macbeth was his most daunting role.

The next hurdle is Lear. "That's my Mount Everest," he says.

Neither Tall Nor Aristocratic

The son of a Leeds postal worker, Bedford notes that his life "really began when I was 18 and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. My classmates included Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, and Alan Bates. We were all rebellious, working-class, came from the provinces, and became close friends."

He adds, "I shared an apartment with Alan; he was 19, I was 18. In many ways we were the same person. I'm happy I was able to spend some time with him the last six weeks of his life. He had pancreatic cancer and liver cancer and then it was everywhere else. He knew what his condition was, but he cheered me up," Bedford marvels, even in retrospect.

Those years at RADA (1954-56) were seminal, he recalls, but the school's training was unimpressive: "It was tired and out of sync with the times. Maybe theatre was out of sync with the times. It wasn't until Osborne wrote 'Look Back in Anger' that working-class people were viewed as interesting as theatrical subjects. And at the school we were taught that if we wanted to play leading men, we had to be six feet tall, aristocratic looking, and speak with an Oxford accent!"

Nevertheless, Bedford's career moved along rapidly and by the late 1950s he was appearing on Broadway in Peter Shaffer's "Five Finger Exercise." "I felt I had come home," he remembers, admitting that his love affair with the States had its roots in a lifelong affection for American popular culture -- Hollywood movies, in particular:

"There was a time I went to the movies virtually every night. Now I rarely go. There isn't much to see." Still, his one regret, it seems, is that he hasn't yet starred in a really top-notch film: "I'd like that, especially if I had the chance to work with a great director."

Bedford owns a farm in upstate New York and recently purchased a home in Southern California simply because he likes the area and has friends there -- "not for professional reasons," he insists. But he is based in Stratford, Ontario, leading an array of productions at the Stratford Festival, many of which he has also directed. He is now hoping to bring his latest show there, "The School for Scandal," which has already enjoyed a successful run at L.A.'s Mark Taper Forum, to New York. He is both star and helmsman.

Bedford concedes that directing himself is a challenge and acknowledges the help of his associate director, Robert Beard -- a former stage manager with whom he has worked for 35 years -- who functions as a second set of eyes and ears, watching previews and making suggestions.

At the moment, however, Bedford's thoughts are focused on "As You Like It" and Jaques, convinced that while the play and its universal themes may resonate with contemporary audiences in precisely the same way they did with Elizabethans -- "human feelings about love have not changed" -- Jaques is a modern man. Besides his ecological and spiritual concerns, Jaques' cynicism hits a chord today, perhaps more so than at any other time.

"When he says, 'Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly,' that could have been written by Beckett," Bedford points out. "We live in depressed times. The antidepressant industry is booming and it's not surprising. I'm not one of those actors who likes to display my political beliefs. But I can't help feeling that the world's political climate is conducive to cynicism."

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