PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Desmond Heeley

By Kenneth Jones
15 Jan 2011

Charlotte Parry and Sara Topham in The Importance of Being Earnest
photo by Joan Marcus

Brian Bedford plays the role of Lady Bracknell. Can you reveal a secret? What is his bust size?
DH: Oh, that I couldn't! [Laughs.] There's no padding, there's no corset, there's nothing, it's just him.

And is there a challenge creating a costume for a man playing a woman?
DH: It's a delicate one, especially if you've never done it before for them. There's a danger. I mean, a number of men have played Bracknell, and the danger, a real danger, is slipping over into camp. But the marvelous thing about old Brian is that he makes her very truthful and plausible. You really do forget it's a male playing the part, and that's his skill as an actor. But it's a little daunting to begin with, to feel your way in. I do dozens and dozens and dozens of sketches and try this, try that before we ever go forward. What the public never sees is the amount of work we do, designers. I mean, we are the first to begin and we're the last to finish.

The needs of the performer — and I mean this very sincerely — the needs of the performer are paramount in making a good design. I happen to love fittings.



Bracknell is in black in Act One, and red in Act Three.
DH: Yes! [Laughs.] Well, I saw the fabric first of all, and I thought, "Oh, golly! That's — woo! I wonder if, I wonder if." Perhaps [it was] a tad bright, but it was meant to be ruby-ish but something happened and it grew. But I think it happily grew, you know.

I love when clothes indicate character. Mischievous Algernon wears rather bold stripes, which conveys a kind of youth.
DH: Well, the stripes are a university blazer. It's Oxford, you know. He is a bit bolder than normal, but like he says, he has nothing but looks everything.

You've taught many students over the years.
DH: I've done lots of lectures and show-and-tells… I can't call it teaching. What I like to call it is raising enthusiasm.

Do you underline the "hand-painted" quality?
DH: Not the hand-painted quality. That can be misleading if you emphasize that. [The focus of my teaching] is to use any skills you have to tell a story. Some people draw beautifully and can put it down. Some people are technically wonderfully equipped to do that sort of thing. Some people are visionaries and poets who need help from the staff. So there's no given way. In teaching, I've always tried to help the student find his or her own voice.

Do you remember your first brush with the theatre? Were you a kid? Did you go to "pantos" in England?
DH: At the age of five, I was taken to see a pantomime, which I think was called Goldilocks and the Three Bears. And for some reason, in it, there was a spooky toy shop, which I thought was rather good at five, but out of this ceiling came this cardboard skeleton dancing about, and I can remember it plainly, and thinking, "That's not very good. It's just an old cardboard thing." But at the same time, in the toy shop, there were these life-sized dolls in boxes, and do you know what? They came alive. I was amazed. These dolls were alive! It was amazing. [Laughs.] Again, the childhood innocence and the fact that the mask and the dolls had stepped out of their boxes was part of this silly pantomime. It was a very small town. It was not a grand theatre at all.

You grew up in the provinces?
DH: Yeah, just outside Stratford-on-Avon, and then Stratford-on-Avon became my home. My debut as a designer was at Stratford-on-Avon. I think I was 17. I was on staff, and they said, "We're going to do Toad at Toad Hall and you're doing the costumes for it." [I said], "Oh! O.K.!" By then, I'd been working there for a year and was a useful pair of hands, and I was cheap.

Are you a visual artist on your own? Do you paint?
DH: No, I do paint, but I'm a theatre guy. I wish I were a real painter; I'm not. I'm a theatre one. There's a great difference, you know.

(Kenneth Jones is managing editor of Playbill.com. Write to him at kjones@playbill.com.)

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