A female Richard III…. There’s nothing unusual about that in these days of cross-gender casting, and the success of Glenda Jackson’s King Lear at the Old Vic, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at The Royal Exchange, or Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a fictional women’s prison. Cross-gender casting has all but gone mainstream, a positive part of the on-going discussion about parity, diversity, and representation on our screens, theatres and opera stages. In film, we’re going through a welcome phase of older women leads and central mother/daughter relationships (Lady Bird; I, Tonya, et al) There is also heartening change in the representation of people of colour, with the release of films including Moonlight and The Black Panther. Yet in the midst of all this welcome change, there is still one aspect largely overlooked, especially in our theatres: the representation of physical difference and the actors who portray characters with disabilities.
There are many parallels between race and disability in both historical portrayal and popular culture representation. People of colour on stage and in film have been limited until quite recently to negative and supporting roles, while the disabled character is largely either the victim or the villain… But at least black and minority actors got to play these roles, however problematic – very few disabled performers have had the opportunity to play any part, however stereotypical, whilst leading disabled character roles are largely the preserve of celebrity actors. It seems that physical or neuro-diverse transformation is still perceived as the pinnacle of actorly challenge and skill, an opinion reflected in the industry, which is why playing a crip’ as a non-disabled thesp’ is invariably an award-winning role.
As a dramaturg and playwright who works in disability arts and culture, as well as the so-called ‘mainstream’, I’ve spent much of my career trying to follow Gandhi’s maxim of being the change I want to see in the world. This has largely entailed writing parts specifically for Deaf and disabled performers that lie outside the usual narrow confines of victim, psychopath, or as inspirational porn. I’ve tried to write complex, sexy, funny, dangerous, lovable, cheating, loyal, sensitive characters who are as fucked-up or sorted as their hearing, non-disabled counterparts. I’ve tried to find narratives that are more than medical dramas linked solely to a diagnosis, or the character’s relationship to herself as outsider.
Since the Ancient Greeks disability has been used as a dramaturgical tool to scare, warn, explain, or remind us of our mortality, and the inevitable, inescapable cycle of life. Fearful and negative human traits have been personified by disabled characters for so long, these harmful fictions have become ingrained and considered ‘truth’, disability studies academics maintain. One of my passions and great joys as a theatre maker has been to try and ‘answer back’ to these negative or reductive portrayals of difference, and to redress or subvert some of these fictions.
Which brings me to my current project, and that veritable poster-boy of embodied difference, Shakespeare’s Richard III, the personification of evil.
This surely is the non-disabled actor’s Everest, the part to relish deforming and making as monstrous as possible. And in richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III we have deconstructed them all, from Olivier’s nasal psychopath to Spacey’s leg-braced Gadaffi, McKellen’s black shirted fascist to Sher’s double-crutched “bottled spider”, Cumberbatch’s life-like prosthetic to Eidinger’s cushion-hump in Ostemier’s post-dramatic production…
I have known performer/collaborator Sara Beer since the 1980’s when we were both involved in the Disabled People’s Movement and the emerging disability arts and culture scene. Sara was the obvious choice for this project when I first conceived the idea of a one woman show about Richard, from a disability perspective, performed by someone with the same physicality as the historical Richard. It wouldn’t be the first time a disabled actor has played the part. Mat Fraser played Richard III in Northern Broadside’s 2017 production, but given how monstrous Shakespeare’s Richard is, and how far he deviates from historical accounts, I started questioning whether having a disabled actor play a distorted disabled part would be ‘enough’? Would it create diversity and balance, or simply reinforce notions of ‘normalcy’ and negative representations of difference? Out of these questionings with co-creator and director Phillip Zarrilli, the project was born – this would not be a production of Shakespeare – rather, a response to Richard’s portrayal both in Shakespeare’s text and through the actors who have embodied him, viewed through a lens which is female, disabled, and predominantly Welsh.
Phillip is a renowned scholar, director, and actor-trainer, and so has brought a wealth of knowledge about acting to the production. We’ve been joyously irreverent, deconstructing the process of acting itself, as well as the process of creating a character. This expertise has enabled Sara to play various personas, many of them comedic, but ultimately serious, taking the audience on three simultaneous journeys in response to Shakespeare’s Richard III:
– a child’s self-awakening as she unexpectedly finds ‘herself’ IN Shakespeare,
– a professional performer’s journey toward playing Richard, and
– a personal journey through Wales in search of the historical ‘richard’ on the route to Bosworth Battlefield.
It was only after Phillip shared his historical research on the ‘real’ Richard III that I realised just how revised Shakespeare’s hatchet job is. Here is another parallel with the experience of people of colour: just as black figures have been white-washed or erased from history, disabled figures have been either normalised or transformed into the hideous, fearful Other – and in Richard, we have character-assassination of the highest order. It’s a double-whammy. Not only did Shakespeare exaggerate Richard’s atypical embodiment and contort it to represent evil, he also re-wrote history, transforming a reforming, popular King, who led thousands into battle despite his scoliosis, into an evil, murdering coward, ready to give up his kingdom for a horse (contemporary sources state he was offered a horse to flee the battlefield, but he responded his fate would be decided there – either to die at Bosworth, or live as King). It comes perhaps as no surprise that many consider Richard III as a piece of Tudor propaganda, written to please powerful patrons and reiterate their (tenuous) claim to the throne.
But what I’ve outlined here isn’t about saying Richard III should never be performed by someone who isn’t disabled – I’m not censoring or bowdlerizing the Bard, and I have great fondness for old “crook-back” Richard. What we seek to do with richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III is to provide an alternative disability perspective in response to Shakespeare’s construction of evil on the disabled body, which is historically inaccurate. And having a bit of fun as we do it.
Richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III tours Wales in March, playing Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Aberystwyth Art Centre Studio, Theatr Clwyd, Mold, The Torch Theatre, Milford Haven and Small World Theatre, Cardigan