Disabled Actors On Claiming The Role Of Richard III


‘I felt really depressed – and tired,” says Mat Fraser of the news that Michelle Terry, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, will play Richard III this summer. Recent years have seen increased resistance to “cripping up”: non-disabled actors mimicking impairment on stage. The role of Richard is often now played by disabled actors, including Fraser, who starred in Barrie Rutter’s 2017 production of the play for Northern Broadsides and Hull Truck. “In 1997 I suggested to Equity that ‘crip face’ was like blacking-up, yet it’s been a constant since then – even now, even at the Globe,” says Fraser. “I will be personally boycotting the production if it goes ahead with this casting; I’m done with the pretenders.”

Disappointment at the announcement has been exacerbated by the Globe’s recent work to include more D/deaf and disabled actors. Francesca Mills played Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2023. Deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah, who appeared in As You Like It and Hamlet in 2018, is due to star in a bilingual spoken English and British Sign Language production of Antony and Cleopatra this summer. Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of the disability-led theatre company Birds of Paradise, says that the venue “is doing great stuff in other ways. So this is going to become, you know, ‘the Globe are bad’ – and it’s not that simple. But it’s one step forward, two steps back. Why do that? Why not just do the one step forward?”

Richard III had a severe curvature of the spine thought to have been caused by scoliosis, and is widely recognised as Shakespeare’s only explicitly disabled protagonist. The character has been performed by a range of non-disabled actors, from Richard Burbage to Laurence Olivier to Mark Rylance. In the same year as Fraser, Kate Mulvany – whose spine is curved as a result of childhood chemotherapy – performed as a gender-swapped Richard with Bell Shakespeare in Sydney. Katy Sullivan, who uses prosthetic legs, is scheduled to do the same at Chicago’s Shakespeare theater in February. Tom Mothersdale who, like Richard himself, has scoliosis – “you get that for free,” he joked – played the king at Bristol Old Vic in 2019. And in 2022, Arthur Hughes made rather overdue history by becoming the first disabled actor to play the role for the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Joshua J Parker, an actor with a disability, is starring in experimental theatre company Messy Kind’s hour-long adaptation, The Life and Death of Richard III, at Barons Court theatre in London in February. “It is a play about disability,” Parker emphasises. “There is an air of authenticity within that part that cannot be learned. There’s an element of truth about how we live our lives, especially when it comes to acting. It’s living truthfully, in imaginary circumstances.”

Katy Sullivan will appear in Chicago Shakespeare theater’s Richard III this year. Photograph: Jeff Sciortino

Parker says the Globe has “never been a venue that’s followed trends. It’s always been something of a trendsetter. And it’s the first time, for me, that it feels almost like it’s taken the foot off the gas a little bit”. Tor Lighten, associate director of the fringe production, agrees: “People look to the Globe for how Shakespeare should be portrayed. They are the beacon. And you work so hard to try to put on fringe theatre: we can barely pay our actors, and we’re trying to be brave and put out groundbreaking storytelling. Casting like this takes away from that hard work.”

Richard III has a prominent place in the history of disability representation. As Katherine Schaap Williams explores in her book Unfixable Forms, Shakespeare’s character has typically been read as associating disability with evil, following the early modern belief that disability was a sign of corruption or divine punishment. He describes himself as “rudely stamped”, “Deformed, unfinished […] scarce half made up”, and explicitly connects his disabled identity with his villainy: since “I cannot prove a lover / I am determined to prove a villain.” Other characters abuse him as a “diffused infection of a man” and a “poisonous bunch-backed toad”.

The play poses an unsettling link between disability and immorality. Disabled actor Daniel Monks performed the title role in Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s version of Shakespeare’s play, at the Donmar Warehouse in 2019. For Monks, the play’s direct depiction of social and internalised ableism means that any production needs to be led by theatre-makers with lived experience of disability to avoid falling into damaging stereotypes: “As a disabled person, I experience ableism daily. It’s a worthy, important topic to explore on our stages – but when it is it done without us, it feels like our oppression is being framed as merely entertainment.”

‘It’s a play about disability’ … actor Joshua J Parker, star of The Life and Death of Richard III. Photograph: Hugo Papiernik

The Globe released a social-media statement defending the casting, saying that although they “recognise the barriers to access in our industry […] and are working hard to address that”, they also believe that “all artists should have the right to play all parts in [these plays]”. Sam Brewer, a blind actor and co-founder of disability-led theatre company FlawBored, rejects this: “There’s this idea that everyone should be allowed to tell any story. Well, disabled people aren’t allowed to tell any story other than their own – and now you’ve taken this one away from us. So when a disabled character or a disabled story is taken away from us, it’s like, well, great, there’s one other thing that we don’t have – and we’re being further closed off from this industry. So the day when that becomes more equal, and the pendulum swings back to the middle, and everyone’s able to play every role – then, yes, go for your bloody life. But until then, sorry, no, it’s not OK.”

Stephen Bailey, who is neurodivergent and speaking in his role as artistic lead of disability-centric theatre company Vital Xposure, agrees: “If we are debating Richard III, we’re debating the bare minimum: this is the most obviously, textually disabled character. We’re stuck debating whether we can play the most iconic disabled character in the literary canon. That’s really tiring.”

Casting disabled actors opens up new opportunities for dramatically effective performance. Fraser points specifically to the advantage that actual impairment offers in productions of Richard III, in which the king uses his own disability to manipulate the court to his own ends. At one point in the play, Richard dramatically reveals his impaired arm, proclaiming it to be the result of witchcraft enacted against him by his enemies: “Look how I am bewitched. / Behold, mine arm / Is like a blasted sapling, withered up.” Fraser, who has visible limb difference, says: “Let me tell you, when I held up my arm and said that line, it terrified the audience with its visceral reality – irreplaceable by a non-disabled actor.”

Softley Gale supports the idea that casting disabled roles authentically can lead to better theatre: “People go, ‘Well it’s not about being, it’s about acting.’ But this idea that acting is about pretending is not the case, I would argue. Acting, theatre, is about authenticity; it’s about believability. It’s the same for Black and ethnic characters: it’s about an authentic voice.”



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