Eric Tucker is an off-Broadway director and Artistic Director of Bedlam Theatre. Musa Gurnis is an early modern theater scholar and actor.
When we pitched our Shakespeare mash-up series BEDLAM to streaming networks we joked that we had run out of things to binge watch during the pandemic and so decided to rewrite King Lear. In reality, Eric had been thinking for years about creating a television show that would intertwine plots from multiple Shakespeare plays, fusing characters from different dramatic worlds into a serialized epic.
Realizing in the spring of 2020 that no one would be doing live performances for a while, Eric started writing for the camera, bringing in Musa as a writing partner to help pull appropriate text from other plays in Shakespeare’s canon that could be repurposed for dialogue in the nine hour-long episodes of new plot. The pandemic gave us time to write. Working in the tonally flexible conventions of smart contemporary television, drawing from such shows as The Sopranos, Euphoria, The Great, and Twin Peaks inspired us. We felt we were doing what Shakespeare would have done had he lived in our time, pillaging the treasures of high culture and reimagining them as experimental pop culture.
The plot of BEDLAM twists together the stories of King Lear and The Merry Wives of Windsor in a gritty small-time crime world. Eric had previously directed a three-person version of The Merry Wives of Windsor in the style of a Coen Brothers movie, set in a roadside motel. The darkness of that production, emphasizing the way those characters treat each other so terribly and all seem to be out for themselves, merged with the cruelty of King Lear in our series.
The year prior to the pandemic, Eric directed and Musa dramaturged a King Lear starring Zuzanna Szadkowski. Zuzanna reinvented Shakespeare’s selfish, aging father as a narcissistic mom dying of cancer, whom we nicknamed “Linda” in the rehearsal room. Zuzanna’s chain-smoking, self-dramatizing, domineering, lonely, diet-coke guzzling Linda (a character she reprises in our series) was such a specific, modern person that we often found ourselves writing the seedy world of Windsor City around her, the woman that runs it. Folding together Shakespeare’s characters gave new dimensions to their lives. We combined Kent with Frank Ford, and Gloucester with George Page, so that the scenes from King Lear show the men at work while the Merry Wives plot explores their problems at home.
While our series takes great freedom with Shakespeare’s plays, we also drew heavily on key features of Shakespeare’s dramaturgy. Juxtaposing plots gives BEDLAM the tonal variety so distinctive to Shakespeare, swerving from low-life con men plotting in the urinals to moments of strange magic. In melding the self-interested scammer Falstaff with the faithful Fool we were developing one of Shakespeare’s most innovative techniques for creating the illusion of interiority: characters who behave in contradictory ways seem more like real people.
While King Lear and Merry Wives form the core of the expanded plot, our series incorporates dialogue from fifteen other plays and a dozen poems. This pastiche script underscores how deeply Shakespeare’s plays speak to each other, exploring different versions of conflicts between parents and children, rulers and subjects. Combining pieces of scenes from multiple sources in a new arrangement creates something like the experience of repertory, in which the previous roles of actors inform their current characters.
Ultimately, the challenge of making this patched dialogue sound as if it all belonged within the same world rested on the performers. On set, Eric would first shoot our script as written, then film another take allowing the two dozen accomplished classical stage actors in our series to “open up” the Shakespearean dialogue with modern ad libs. With this freedom our Falstaff (Elan Zafir) and Pistol (Mike Labbadia) improvised sleazy Petrarchan pick-up lines. The insertion of contemporary slang tricks the ears of the audience, making the verse sound as natural as modern speech. In this spirit, Edmund (Ryan Quinn) delivers his “bastardy” monologue as a stand-up comedy act. Rev. Evans’s double entendre heavy Latin lesson becomes a masturbatory Zoom call. We invited the composer Ahmond to set a half-dozen sonnets to new music in contemporary genres—country, hip hop, post-punk—embedded diegetically in the dive bar open mic nights, car radios, and singing telegrams of tawdry Windsor City.
We wanted to give viewers a version of Shakespeare in which they could recognize themselves. BEDLAM’s characters feel like contemporary people: they puke in parking lots, make TikTok videos, talk trash. BEDLAM brings the intensity of Shakespeare into the intimacy of an ugly family fight at dinner. For Shakespeare’s language to live in the modern world, it must live in the mouths of diverse people. Audiences, particularly younger viewers, feel more seen and spoken to when somebody soliloquizing looks like them. Pitching our series to networks such as Netflix, we stressed the value of inclusive, color-conscious casting that invites audiences to see themselves in the stories they watch without perpetuating damaging stereotypes.
The flexibility of nontraditional casting allowed us to search more widely for that elusive, transformative alchemy that deeply melds the qualities of a character with the idiosyncrasies of an actor. To counter the straightwashing so pervasive in modern productions of Shakespeare we filled Windsor City with queer people, regendering roles to match the identities of performers. We expanded the love story between France (played by the actress Ashley Bufkin) and Cordeel (played by the nonbinary actor Kaden Kearney), reimagining Dover as a queer squat full of teen runaways, a reparative place of mutual aid and chosen family, where love takes up what is cast away.
BEDLAM treats Shakespeare as a raw and malleable piece of shared culture available for use. Our series refashions Shakespeare’s plays for post-Trump America. It is a show about narcissists with power; about how abusive dynamics within families are inflicted on the outside world; about the divide between those who look after others and those who look out for themselves. In BEDLAM, the people of Windsor City struggle with the same questions that are keeping most of the country up at night: Where will you go if you lose your home? If you get sick who will care for you?