He has many names: Tricky Dicky, Richard Plantagenet, the Duke of Gloucester, King Richard III. He is famed for being scheming, manipulative, morally corrupt, and also possesses a nondescript disability commonly alluded to in performance through able-bodied actors feigning a limp, walking with a cane, and adopting a hunch-backed stance (often through the aid of prosthetics) meant to suggest varying degrees of scoliosis. In his famous opening soliloquy, Richard refers to himself as:
Deformed, unfinish’d, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them. (ACT I, lines 20-24)
Exhumed in 2013, the remains of the real Richard III (supposedly from whom Shakespeare drew inspiration for his play of the same name) revealed an 80 degree curvature of the spine, confirming that the king had scoliosis. There is no doubt that Richard III is a disabled character; why, then, is it a role that seems to be portrayed almost exclusively by able-bodied actors? In a time when colourblind casting has largely come under scrutiny and has been discarded in favour of casting consciously, it is surprising that the casting of able-bodied actors in disabled roles has been allowed to continue relatively unchecked. Playing right now at the Stratford Festival is one such production of Richard III, with Colm Feore (who is not disabled) “cripping up” (wherein an able-bodied actor takes on the role of a disabled character) for the title role. Admittedly, I have not seen this performance, though I do not feel I need to in order to engage with the discussion of why such a casting choice is objectively wrong, especially in an era when there is a push for marginalised actors to be allowed to play roles that are written for them. Why does disability always seem to be left out of the conversation?
Reportedly, Feore plays the last plantagenet king as having a curved spine, a limp, and one arm that is shorter than the other. Despite the fact that the Stratford Festival brought in a disability consultant specifically to oversee this production of Richard III, Feore’s take on the last plantagenet king will arguably still lack the nuance that only a disabled actor would be able to bring to the role, verging instead on being both practically ineffectual and wildly offensive. No one wants to watch an able-bodied actor perform their best parody of what they feel disability looks like, which is no doubt what this performance is; this Richard III, like so many that came before it, is one performed by able bodied people for able bodied people. One of the things that is most frustrating about Feore being cast in this role is the notion that being able to play a disabled character is the pinnacle of artistry, the mark of Capital G Great Acting. Think about it: in this industry, the taking on of disabled roles by able bodied actors is the fastest route to accolades and awards, as if cripping up is the ultimate measure of achievement. Look at Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump, Sean Penn in Sam I Am, Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, etcetera, etcetera. The list goes on. It begs the question: who do these roles belong to?
That was rhetorical. I have the answer: disabled actors. Say it with me: Disabled roles should be played by disabled actors. Disabled roles should be played by disabled actors.
Not all hope is lost, however; the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon also put on a production of Richard III this year, one in which Arthur Hughes became the first disabled actor to play Tricky Dicky at the RSC ever. I did see this performance in July, and Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, was nothing short of phenomenal. Hughes’ Richard III was electrifying – full of energy and play at one moment, then feral and intense in the next. His use of humour was astounding – imbued with devilish delight and razor sharp wit, we understand how Richard is first able to seduce the recently widowed Anne at the funeral of her late father-in-law, and later Elizabeth after ordering the execution of her young children in the Tower. Hughes’ very gall as Richard III seems to be what allows Richard to almost get away with everything. Anne agrees to marry him because, like us, she can’t actually believe he would come to woo her over Henry VI’s casket – she is caught entirely off guard by Richard’s sheer arrogance which Hughes plays tongue-in-cheek. Similarly, Elizabeth mourns for her children – dead by Richard’s orders – in one moment, then throws herself at Richard in the next. This is the first production of Richard III I have seen wherein I understand why he is able to seduce these powerful women in spite of themselves; Hughes’ Richard is extremely intelligent, inappropriately jovial, and entirely without remorse. This combination of explosive qualities makes for an oddly charming and deceptive king.
One moment which so brilliantly showcases Hughes’ wit is when Richard is appointed king by the public – he appears in holy regalia atop a balcony to give the allusion of his own divinity, towering over the peasants below him and positioning himself as the closest one can get to God before departing this life. Richard orchestrates the whole interaction so that he is deemed the rightful heir to the throne – he feigns modesty, at first making a performance out of rejecting the proposition that he take the crown, before ‘acquiescing.’ The whole interaction has been arranged in such a way that it seems as though Richard taking the crown was not his decision at all, though the public who appoint him are merely pawns in his game.
What was also incredibly striking about having a disabled performer play Richard III was how nuanced Richard’s thoughts and feelings about his disability were – because Hughes did not have to manufacture this aspect of himself as Feore would, for example, his Richard is instantly more authentic and dynamic. Seeing this performance reiterated to me why it is important that marginalised actors be allowed to tell the stories that were written for them – it is pure arrogance and ignorance on the part of an able-bodied actor to assume that they can not only play a disabled character better than a disabled performer, but that they are entitled to that character at all. Disability is not a costume. Disabled people cannot put on and take off their disability as they please. As such, the bodies of disabled performers on stage is inherently powerful, political, and means something in a world that is hell-bent on making living with disability impossibly difficult and stigmatised.
This is the part of equity that white straight cis-het male able-bodied actors struggle with the most, I think – the idea that they are not entitled to every space and every role, and should in fact have the grace and self-awareness to turn down roles that were simply not written for them. In this era, frankly, Colm Feore should not have even been offered the role of Richard III and he should have had the good sense to turn it down with the understanding that disabled characters should – at the very least – be played by disabled actors who get only a fraction of the opportunities that their able-bodied counterparts do to begin with.