During the Watergate era, Brian Bedford played Shakespeare's Richard III as a somber Nixon-style politician, all business. In contrast, Bedford plays Richard III's predecessor, Richard II, as a king who has a hard time taking his job seriously. Such a bore, having to listen patiently as two windy nobles go on and on about what a miscreant the other is. In the Old Globe Theatre's production here, Richard rolls his eyes at the court to get a laugh, and gets it. Such is the fate of kings--being talked to death.
In fact, fate has something more dire in store for Richard, and in prison he is able to see a grim joke in it. "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."
His satire cuts deepest when he surrenders the crown to Bolingbroke (Vaughn Armstrong). Rather than handling the crown like a sacred vessel, Bedford slips it to his rival like a man tossing a dish of scraps to a dog. Here, cousin--if you're so hungry.
The contempt is superb. No actor has had a quicker eye for Richard's comic possibilities, and Bedford doesn't play them cheaply. Every joke makes a point.
Yet Shakespeare's character can't be seen merely as an ironist. He's also a believer. For him, the crown does truly come from God, and can't be usurped without sin. A really potent production of "Richard II" leaves us able to understand the medieval distinction between the king and the man. Even in his simple moments--and they come, particularly at the end--Bedford's Richard seems too much the skeptic to believe in his own sacredness, and the role loses much of its romance. This Richard doesn't cast a spell.
True, he finds himself in a particularly unsusceptible court. Perhaps that's the point of Joseph Hardy's Old Globe production, to suggest that Richard's world has become a fairy tale while he wasn't looking--that politics is cash-on-the-barrelhead now. Certainly Larry Drake's Northumberland epitomizes the brute bureaucrat, and Tom Harrison's Aumerle looks as if he'll be dangerous when he gets a little older.
But other characterizations aren't so clear. It's excellent, for example, that Armstrong as Richard's usurper, Bolingbroke (Henry IV-to-be) begins as a provincial with no taste for this king business. But it's puzzling that a taste for power doesn't develop somewhere along the way. Bolingbroke isn't totally a creature of his advisers. If he doesn't want the throne, how does he get it?
A puzzle of another order is the double-casting of that excellent character actor G Wood. Wood reads John of Gaunt's dying speech about "this scepter'd isle . . . this England" with the regret of a dying man who realizes too late that he should have spoken out for England while there was time. This is interesting and moving. But it's disconcerting to have Wood come back as the gabby gardener later in the play. An actor this distinctive can't be used twice in the same show without the impression that somebody is trying to save money.
That's not at all the impression left by the physical production, which is exquisite. A simple planked set by Douglas Schmidt softly transposes into a prison, or a jousting field, or a throne room, or a walled garden where ladies in silk gowns may converse, with the magic attributable to lighting designer David F. Segal and costumer Steven Rubin. This "Richard II" offers much to the eye, and something for the mind, but the final impression is incomplete.
Shakespeare's play, presented by the Old Globe Theatre, San Diego. Director Joseph Hardy. Set design Douglas W. Schmidt. Costumes Steven Rubin. Lighting David F. Segal. Sound Michael Holten. Composer Conrad Susa. Fight choreography Steve Rankin. Stage manager Douglas Pagliotti. With Brian Bedford, Earle Hyman, G Wood, Vaughn Armstrong, Erica Yohn, Tom Harrison, Kenneth Gray, Henry J. Jordan, William D. Michie, William Anton, David Anthony Smith, Larry Drake, James Morrison, Robert Hock, Eric Grischkat, Kenneth Gray, Dierk Torsek, Mark Loftis, Steve Rankin, David Toney, Monique Fowler, Tim MacDonald, Ron Richards, Dorothy Milne, Joyce O'Conner, Walter Murray, John Navarro, Neil Alan Tadken, Peter Carlton Brown. Plays in repertory with "Tartuffe" and "Beyond the Fringe" through Aug. 31. Simon Edison Center for the Performing Arts, Balboa Park. 619-239-2255.