Brian Bedford has long been a mainstay of the Stratford Festival stage, having performed and directed to great acclaim. He’s even directed himself in a series of Noel Coward comedies over the past few years with great success and consistency. However, making the leap from glib, flapper era parlor pieces to King Lear is a challenge, even for the very best, as this production clearly illustrates.
Of the Shakespeare offerings this year at Stratford, King Lear is the most traditional. Bedford makes good use of the stage, with blocking that pushes the boundaries of neither good taste nor imagination. It is, however, generally serviceable and uses the bare stage as it was intended to be used. The casting and costuming are both similarly serviceable and traditional, and the production is tied together with a strong, highly effective lighting scheme which offers texture and atmosphere in lieu of sets.
The bottom line, however, is that Bedford should never have been allowed to direct himself in anything this ambitious. The blocking and staging are consistently weaker whenever he’s on stage, and actors visibly lose focus. Bedford brings a light humor to the part, which is welcome in the opening scenes; but rather than use this lightness as a springboard to highlight the depth of tragedy, Bedford keeps the lightness throughout, much to the detriment of the production as a whole. Combined with Bernard Hopkins’ moribund Fool, the tragedy remains flat and inconsequential.
Among the more notable aspects of the production are the inspired casting and costuming of Wenna Shaw and Wendy Robie as Goneril and Regan, respectively. Remarkably similar in appearance, they are also dressed nearly identically, making it difficult to know at first who is whom (Regan is taller and red-headed). Both women approach their roles with vicious imperiousness, and they are united in their disdainful jealousy toward their much younger sister. As the play progresses, their costumes gradually gain slight color variations, and later, as they begin to be at odds with each other, their costumes diverge completely. It is a subtle, but elegant touch.
Sara Topham does not fare as well as Cordelia, largely because she approaches the opening scene with so much stalwart resoluteness, making it impossible to feel any sympathy for her. Her refusal to pander to her father’s pride makes her seem simply stubborn, contrary, and even somewhat hostile. She shows no emotion when her father exiles her or sells her off to France. Bedford also does her a disservice by cutting the character of Burgundy, and the exchange in which the prince refuses her without a dowry is missing. Without this additional level of humiliation, Topham has considerably less to work with, though she doesn’t do much with what she’s got. On the other hand, her intractable stance suits her slightly better in the latter part of the play, where she brings a hint of Joan of Arc to the part.
The remaining cast is fairly flat and unremarkable. Scott Wentworth’s Gloucester begins the play as a feeble old man, stooped and with wavering voice, but illogically loses it once his eyes are plucked. Oddly, his performance following this procedure has him gaining stature and vocal strength; perhaps the blinding makes him less comfortable moving onstage. The eye-plucking scene, itself, is dispassionate and ineffectual. Peter Donaldson and Bernard Hopkins as Kent and the Fool, respectively, both appear to be acting by numbers. Dion Johnstone’s Edmund is competent, though less intellectually conniving than one would like, while Gareth Potter plays Edgar with a nice vulnerability and quiet intensity.
Overall, this King Lear would have been vastly better had Bedford either directed or starred, but in attempting to do both, the production fails to achieve the depth and consideration it deserves. It simply hovers around a superficial, unmemorable treatment that fails to move because it fails to take chances with the characters or to realize them fully. It might even be construed as serviceable for anyone not familiar with the play. It’s highly traditional in terms of costuming and staging, which might please the average theatergoer, but it will not enthrall them or leave them aching for more Shakespeare.
Viewing Note: As in all productions featuring Brian Bedford, the theatre is kept very cold (Mr. Bedford dislikes the heat generated by the stage lights). Be sure to bring a sweater or light jacket.