Stratford Festival opens with Bedford playing King Lear

A King Lear starring Tony Award-winning actor Brian Bedford in the lead role opens the Stratford Festival of Canada Monday evening.

Graham Greene debuts as Shylock on Friday

A King Lear starring Tony Award-winning actor Brian Bedford in the lead role opens the Stratford Festival of Canada Monday evening.

Brian Bedford, a veteran of the Stratford stage, plays King Lear as the Stratford season opens. (Stratford Festival of Canada)

Bedford, an audience favourite at Stratford, is also director ofthe production of what many consider Shakespeare's greatest tragedy.

The Shakespeare festival, held since 1953 in the southwestern Ontario town of Stratford, has a week of opening nights planned, with the musical Oklahoma!beginning on Tuesday, followed by To Kill a Mockingbird, The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead and My One and Only.

More Shakespeare premieres this weekend with The Merchant of Venice, starring Graham Greene as Shylock, opening Friday, and Othello and The Comedy of Errors opening on Saturday.

It is the final season for artistic director Richard Monette and he will finish his tenure by directing The Comedy of Errors.

Monette has set the madcap comedy of mistaken identities in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, an idea he had while visiting the city in 2000.

"I was struck by many references in the play to what actually went on in ancient Ephesus. For instance, the theatre where St. Paul preached to the Ephesians is extant and in very good condition. The words he spoke in that theatre are alluded to by Shakespeare in the play," he said.

Richard Monette is ending his tenure at Stratford by directing A Comedy of Errors and An Ideal Husband. ((David Hou/Stratford Festival of Canada))

"I decided that if I ever had the chance to direct The Comedy of Errors again, I would set it in the city of ancient Ephesus."

Monette also directs An Ideal Husband later in the season.

He is leaving after 14 years at the festival, passing the torch to a new group of artistic staff led by Antoni Cimolino.

Greene's debut is also hotly anticipated, in part because of Greene's pedigree, but also because the role of Shylock is always beset with accusations of anti-Semitism.

"I thought he could have chosen something safer," Monette said of Greene's Stratford debut. "I said, 'Why did you want to play Shylock?' He said 'I was tired of playing Indians.'"

'I can identify with' Shylock: Greene

The Canadian aboriginal actor, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role in Dances with Wolves, has spent a lot of his career looking for roles that defy stereotypes.

"I feelI can identify with what Shylock is going through," Greene said in an interview with CBC Television.

"I've been the victim of prejudice many times, many places.… Shakespeare didn't write about him in a racist way, he wrote about the human condition."

Bedford is also a marquee name on the Stratford stage. He's played Macbeth, Richard II, Richard III, Tartuffe and numerous other dramatic and comedic roles.

King Lear also stars Wenna Shaw as Goneril and Sara Topham as Cordelia.

Othello, debuting on Saturday,features Philip Akin in the lead role.