Back to School

By Rob Kendt

Performances Magazine, Dec. 2004


Taper audiences last glimpsed Brian Bedford as a pair of Sganarelles in a matched set of Moliere comedies in repertory, The School for Husbands and The Imaginary Cuckold, which he also directed.

Now he's back at the Taper to restage his acclaimed production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal, which originated under director Richard Monette at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada, then reappeared under Bedford's direction in Chicago in 2000.

Here he appears as Sir Peter Teazle, another middle-aged husband trying to keep tabs on a young wife. But, as the classics-steeped Bedford explained during a recent break from rehearsals, Sheridan and Moliere are worlds apart, and Bedford has devised quite a different lesson plan for this new School.



Q: The School for Scandal was written in 1777, and you're setting your production in period costume. As a director, how do you go about creating the world of the play?

Brian Bedford: You want to create an enviable, fascinating world for the audience. I'm very happy setting plays, you know, in a contemporary period, but it seems to me such an opportunity missed, when you have this magnificent period for clothes, both for men and women.

Q: It's hard to imagine Sir Peter Teazle without a wig.

Bedford: Yeah, but a production of School for Scandal can be done with people watching television and using telephones, that kind of thing; you can do that. And of course, the "scandal" part of the play is probably even more vibrantly alive today than it was even in the 18th century--People magazine, The National Enquirer, every gossip column in every newspaper.

As a director, you want to make very accessible what the playwright wants to give to the audience. And if you set it in its original setting, the late 18th century, how do you go about doing that? Of course, you can only do it via your own period--2004. It's one of the great challenges, creating that world, because fundamentally you must create a world the audience believes actually exists--but at the same time you also want them to have a contemporary experience.

Q: How do you do that?

Bedford: I always try, with every play I do, to get as much dimension into it as the text will support. The amazing thing about, for instance, Shakespeare and Moliere is that any kind of scrutiny, psychological or whatever, that you can bring to these plays, the text supports.

Even in this beautiful little play, The School for Scandal, the psychology of Sir Peter Teazle, is quite amazing. Here is a man in his late 50s, maybe 60, who marries for the first time, who has had no experience with women; it's like they're from another planet.

It's very strange that a man of his age should suddenly fall deeply in love with a beautiful young girl. But both the young girl and the old man turn out to be quite extraordinary people. You know we all say, "He's too old to change," but this man actually manages to change; it's interesting [to find] where the resources for this change come from. They both change, in fact, as much as a character in a more serious play changes.

Of course, you can't overload these characters with dimension, but what interests me is what all classical writers have in common: that they're writing about life itself, the phenomenon that we all experience, whatever age we're in, whatever century we're in. Shakespeare, in Hamlet's advice to the players, specifies his own mandate, which is "to hold the mirror up to nature." When you get into that area, there's no end to your excavation and your scrutiny of the text, with regard to producing this full image.

Q: But the mirror held up by a play like Scandal is a stylized mirror--more a refraction than reflection, wouldn't you say?

Bedford: Well, I think what it's reflecting has style--obviously, a different style than the style that we have in 2004. You see, style to me is absolutely everything. It's not a superficial thing--it's nothing to do with how you use your snuffbox, or the way you use your fan, or the way you use your lace handkerchief, you know. It's reality. Of course, when you're talking about reality, it's a reality that you create, because we don't know what the 18th century reality was, and so our job as actors and directors is to piece all that together.

Now, although I'm saying that style is not a superficial thing, it does embrace aspects of our lives, like the way we walk, and the fact that, in this play, you're dealing with a degree of high society. These people would have recieved dancing lessons, lessons in rhetoric and elocution. And of course the clothes that they wore would dictate how they move, especially the women, with their fans, and the men with their wigs and their heels.

Q: Is it hard to find actors who can do this style convincingly?

Bedford: Very, very hard. The classical actor is almost an endangered species today. We did three days of intensive auditioning in New York, which means that we saw, like, 60 people, and we cast one part. But the good news is that we did much, much better out here.

Q: Really?

Bedford: Yes! I mean, some of the parts had already been cast with people I'd worked with before: We have three people coming from Chicago, and a number coming from New York. But they're mostly from Los Angeles. I think one of the reasons the play is so hard to cast is, Why should young actors be able to do this style? They never see it, they never do it. When I was at theatre school, every night of the week you could go to the theatre and see sublime examples of all different periods of plays and acting. That was one of the great pluses of being at theatre school at the time that I was there, in the '50s.

Q: Is that when you first saw The School for Scandal?

Brian Bedford: Yes, my introduction to this play was seeing a magnificent, all-star production that John Gielgud, who was a mentor of mine, did in something like 1960.

Q: He played Sir Peter?

Bedford: No, he played Joseph Surface, which is shocking, because Joseph Surface is one of the young men in the play, and in 1960 Gielgud was in his late 50s. Ralph Richardson played Sir Peter, and Margaret Rutherford gave one of the most magnificent performances I've ever seen on a stage as Mrs. Candor.

It was, to my eyes at that time, the most stylish thing I'd ever seen. And it manifested what I've just been saying about style not just being something superficial--that it goes all the way through the person and into the person.

Q: There might be a confusion, I think, in some playgoers' minds: The School for Scandal, The School for Wives, all these schools…

Bedford: I know, and especially to do with me, because I do all these plays called The School for… Whatever. I've been in The School for Wives about three times, and I've been in The School for Scandal--this will be the third time--and The School for Husbands, which was one of the plays that we did here at the Taper in the Moliere double bill.

Q: And there are some obvious similarities between the themes and characters in Sheridan's play and much of Moliere's later work.

Bedford: Yes, I often wonder, with regard to School for Scandal, whether Sheridan had read his Moliere, because this is the prototypical Moliere play--the old man and the young girl. Actually, it's commedia dell'arté, which is how Moliere evolved. He wrote a lot of commedia, then he went on to his great, great plays, written in verse, but retained the characters.

But the difference is night and day between Moliere and Sheridan, and it's probably to do with what kind of people they actually were themselves. All Moliere's great leading characters were men who were seemingly obsessed by young women and similarly obsessed with themselves. The psychology in Moliere is very, very astringent; we're talking about really very chilly people. And of course this is not true in Shakespeare, and it's not true in Sheridan.

Q: Sheridan was also a Member of Parliament while he was writing plays, is that right?

Bedford: Yes, life was weird in those days. Do you know the playwright Vanbrugh, the man who wrote The Relapse? This man was an absolute genius as an architect, and he built Castle Howard--you remember the Brideshead series, that magnificent house? That was Vanbrugh. What people were able to achieve! I've just been reading Trollope. Trollope worked in the post office in England--he invented the bloody red pillar box, you know, where you post your letter--but he also published something like 150 novels!

Sheridan was also an Irishman. And there's something about that that emerges in his work. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I think it's a kind of warmth. Even Oscar Wilde had a warmth to him. So does Beckett, even in Godot--there's something warm and human about the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon.

Q: When you're directing a comedy, how much of it is tending to the laughs, punching up the jokes?

Bedford: Well, that's what you're all about. But you mustn't get seduced by the laughs. What an actor wants to hear more than anything is the audience laughing. But you've gotta be at the driver's seat with your own performance. You've gotta get your laughs through the truth of the situation.

It's easy for some people to get a laugh. It's easy for me to get a laugh. I've got a very plastic kind of face, especially onstage, and I've got a very high sense of responsibility to an audience, and also I've got the usual actor's lack of confidence, so it's very easy for me to, like, just do something, like rearrange my face, and get a big laugh.

Q: And it feels great.

Bedford: It feels fabulous, but then afterwards you think, "I shouldn't have done that. That was just something between me and the audience. It wasn't to do with me being the character, and reacting to a fellow actor in his character."

Because an audience laughing or applauding, or even giving you a standing ovation, is, to quote Lady Bracknell, "no guarantee of respectability."