Saturday, January 16, 2016

The year gets off to a sombre start

Every December, between Christmas and New Year's we get the inevitable lists of things that happened during the previous 12 months and most often, a roll-call of well-known people who have passed away the previous year.

The list for 2016 is inordinately long already, and we are only two weeks into the new year!  Many of the celebrities and people in the news who have passed away so far this year have gotten a lot of ink or airtime already - people like David Bowie and Celine Dion's brother and husband, for example.

As tragic as these passings are, they do serve a purpose.  They remind us we are all mortal, and no matter how rich and famous we are, we are not going to live forever.  Oh, some may think so, but the sad reality is, we all have to go sometime.

Cruel as the timing might appear to be this early into 2016, the cycle of life really follows no particular calendar, so we may have a number of high-profile passings in a relatively short period of time, and then inexplicably go several months without a familiar name leaving us.

What we can take away from these passings is we have to live our lives now, not wait until we feel the time is right for whatever particular reason.  I am guilty of this as the next person, really.  I worry too much about things that in the overall scheme of things really don't matter at all.

The greatest gift we can have is the gift of good health.  With it you can do almost anything.  Without it, and you might find it difficult to see the good in life and those around you.

Still, I have met many people and I am sure you have too, who know the importance of living life in the moment because they see their own mortality for one reason or another, and don't worry about the future they have no control over.  Then there are the others who don't realize how lucky they are they have been blessed with good health.

I spent a lot of time thinking about all these things this weekend after the recent spate of celebrity passings, but also two passings in the arts world that have not gotten as much publicity as they deserve.

This past week, two high-profile actors with the Stratford Festival passed away, and I have fond memories of watching them both on stage at Stratford for many years.  Let's take a few moments and celebrate the rich lives lived by William Needles and Brian Bedford.

William Needles (or Bill to his many friends and fans) died January 12th at the age of 97.  He had been moved to a hospice in Alliston after suffering a massive heart attack in his adopted hometown of  Stratford on December 19th.

Bill was Canada's oldest working actor, having retired from the stage only ten years ago at the age of 87.  His later years saw him visit the Festival often, travelling through the halls on his scooter and sharing lunch with many of his theatre friends in the greenroom.

His last performance at the Festival was in 2006 when he portrayed Castruchio in The Duchess of Malfi.  His first was playing Norfolk in Shakespeare's Richard III under the direction of Tyrone Guthrie.

Think about that for a moment:  William Needles appeared in over 100 productions over 47 seasons at Stratford.  Amazing.

I saw Bill many times over the years but never got a chance to meet him personally.  The closest I came was about 20 years ago when I happened to be passing by the stage door of the Festival Theatre on my way out from a performance and Bill was already in his street clothes, hurrying out the door.  Most would never have guessed it was him, I suspect.  He commanded the world from the stage, yet became yet another citizen of it when he left the stage.

The other Stratford veteran we lost this week was the inimitable Brian Bedford, who passed away the day after Bill Needles died, January 13th.  Brian was 80 and had been battling cancer for some time.

Brian Bedford was one of the "big guns" at the Festival for many years, starting in his first season in 1975 when he was part of Robin Philips' inaugural Stratford season.  Brian played Malvolio in Twelfth Night and Angelo in Measure for Measure, opposite Martha Henry's Isabella.

Brian performed in over 50 Stratford productions over 29 seasons and directed another 20.  His work away from Stratford brought him acclaim on the Broadway stage and in many films.  But his Stratford work will be what he is best remembered for, I think.

His final production at Stratford was 2013's Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward, and I recall it was a masterful show.  Oddly enough, it turned out to be the final year I would be reviewing from Stratford.

Other memories include the title role in 2007's King Lear, and his memorable turn as Lady Bracknell in 2009's The Importance of Being Earnest.  It proved to be a crowd favourite that year.  I also recall many other productions he appeared in, from Moliere's Tartuffe to the stage version of Amadeus to Waiting for Godot.  There didn't seem to be anything Brian couldn't do well.

Alas, both Brian Bedford and William Needles, who did perform together quite often at Stratford over the years, are now gone.  But neither will be forgotten.

The Festival is dedicating the 2016 production of As You Like It to Mr. Needles' memory, and the 2016 production of Macbeth to Mr. Bedford's memory.  In both cases, a memorial will be held for both actors at a later date.

Yes, life can seem cruel at times when so many we admire pass away too soon or in quick succession.  But rather than lament their passing, let's celebrate their lives, and remember them fondly.

I'm sure both gentlemen would not want it any other way.

January 16th, 2016.

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