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BEDFORD DELVES INTO THE ROLE OF ‘RICHARD II’

“I hate using the word ‘God.’ It’s a word I find very troubling.”

Musing on his interpretation of the title role in “Richard II” for the Old Globe Theatre’s Festival ’86, actor Brian Bedford was deep into the more profound layers of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

“You could just say ‘Self,’ but then some people wouldn’t understand that,” he ventured.

The 51-year-old actor was lounging comfortably in a bright green sweat shirt and white shorts, but his boyish face suddenly reflected something distant, disturbing. As he spoke, slowly, his expressions became Richard’s expressions. It was like watching a capsule version of Bedford’s stage performance.

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“The truth in the case of Richard II . . . is that there is huge and wonderful irony in that this man thinks he’s chosen by God, thinks he knows God, thinks God is his best friend and his sherpa, the man who is leading him. He thinks he’s kind of literally on top of the world.

“And then, after events which he couldn’t conceive could possibly happen, where he loses everything--he loses his kingdom, he loses his wife, he loses everything he owns, and he practically loses his mind--when he ends up in prison, just about to be murdered, he realizes that in order to be anything in this world, you have to be nothing.”

Bedford first played the difficult role three years ago at Canada’s Stratford (Ontario) Festival. The English actor, who lives now in Upstate New York, spent eight seasons at Stratford, playing some of the juiciest roles in dramatic literature.

But “Richard II” presented challenges he never quite resolved, Bedford said. Not until his second go-round with the ill-fated king.

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“It’s a weird and diversified character,” he said. “It’s harder than Hamlet, it’s harder than Lear--not that I’ve played Lear--it’s harder than Richard III, because the drama is on such a spiritual level. I think this time, certainly in my own mind, I’ve managed to reconcile all the aspects of it.”

For Bedford, the troublesome characteristics are epitomized in the scene in which Richard gives up the throne to his cousin, Bolingbroke (who became Henry IV).

“In the middle of this abdication scene, (Richard) asks for a mirror to be brought in, because,” Bedford gives an odd, wry laugh, “he wants to have a look at his face now that he has no majesty and no power. I knew it was sort of an extreme aspect of Richard’s character. . . . Now I think I know why he does it--because I think he is a child. I think he manages to retain that wonderful innocence of a child, even though he’s a very, very extravagant character, and maddening and vain.

“It’s a typical Shakespearean theme in that Richard is not really suited to his position. Henry IV was a much more appropriate man for the needs of that time. He was a warrior, he was a meat-and-potatoes man, you know, and Richard II was a sensitive, frivolous, poetic, mystical creature.”

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On this particular morning, the actor seemed to enjoy taking time to contemplate Shakespeare’s brilliance--worrying only briefly that, no matter how sincere, it all might sound too pretentious on paper.

“ ‘Richard II’ is a mystical play, as are all Shakespeare’s tragedies. It’s quite cosmic,” Bedford said, and launched into a definition of the intangible “something” that gives Shakespeare’s works their lasting fascination.

“Shall we say, and even this doesn’t do it justice, but Shakespeare manages to say things that words are incapable of saying. Beyond the words, he goes. You always find with (the tragedies) that there is a huge play on the outside, all about kings and national events and war and jealousy and madness and love and ambition--all these things.

“Then, there is one layer of it where there is a single individual discovering things about himself and navigating his own way through this weird experience of his life, and usually ending up, for better or for worse, knowing himself, and consequently, knowing, for want of a better word, God.”

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Bedford’s own navigation through life has taken him away from Yorkshire, England, where “my life as a child was awful, in that, you know, I had brothers dying of TB and my parents actually hating each other and all this business--and no money.” He spent two years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his classmates included Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates.

From there, he launched a richly satisfying dramatic career, working with Sir John Gielgud, Peter Brook and Maggie Smith (at Stratford); playing all the best classical roles; making films (“Grand Prix,” “The Pad and How to Use It”); starring in contemporary plays by Peter Shaffer, Tom Stoppard, Noel Coward, and generally reaping “more than my share of the best pies and the best slices.”

For his debut summer with the Old Globe, Bedford is also directing Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” which will open July 20 at the Lowell Davies Festival Theatre outdoor stage.

Bedford has often said that his fascination with the theater was a desire--even when he was 6 years old--to escape from dreary surroundings, to be somebody else. But he’s beginning to see it from another perspective.

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“I’m glad I experienced all the crap that I did when I was a child, because as an actor, or a director, or anything to do with interpreting plays and movies and all that, you find, ironically, that the worst experiences that you have as a human being are the most resourceful ones. . . .

“You can turn the horror that you’ve experienced into something very rewarding for yourself as an actor, and consequently, of course, for other people--for thousands and thousands of other people,” he said. “The dross of your experience turns into gold for other people.”

Performances of “Richard II,” directed by Joseph Hardy, will continue through Aug. 31.


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