On Northern Broadsides’ Richard III

Mat Fraser as Richard III

COMMENT: There is no easy solution to including disabled actors in theatre. But what Northern Broadsides is doing is an important step in the right direction.

I’m very late to the party on this one, but one thing I’ve been meaning to comment on is Northern Broadsides’ much talked-about recent production of Richard III. Not so much the production itself, although Northern Broadsides have a good track record of critical acclaim. This time, is was the casting of Mat Fraser as everyone’s favourite Shakespeare villain, because it is one of the few times a person with a visible disability has been cast in the role. So this is a good opportunity for me to give my thoughts on something I’ve wanted to opine on for some time.

So far, I’ve shied away from commenting on plays I’ve seem which include disabled actors in the cast. It’s always worked whenever I’ve seen this done, but it is difficult to put this into a review without making it sound like a review of accommodating an actor with a disability rather than a review of the play itself. I’d find it condescending if anyone reviewed a play I was in saying how great it was that they included someone on the autistic spectrum. However, as Mat Fraser has given a lot of interviews about being cast for this play specifically in relation to a disability, such as this one to The Stage (which I broadly agree with), I think I can safely assume he wants this talked about. Which is good, because although this production may only be a small step in the right direction, it’s an important one.

Before I go on, one obvious but important disclaimer: I cannot speak for anyone but myself here. This applies to everything I write but it’s especially important here. No-one has the right to speak on behalf of an entire demographic and say what they all want, whether or not they are part of that demographic themselves. All I can do is give my best guess of where I think the problems are and what can be done about this – anyone experiencing the problems themselves are welcome to use their personal experience to say whether or not they agree. This disclaimer established, let’s carry on.

Casting people with disabilities, especially visible disabilities, is a question with no easy answers. Normally, I’m of the strong view that all roles in theatre and film should be open to anyone who can look and act the part. Needless to say, this is not a foolproof catch-all rule that works in all situations; you usually can’t get away with casting men playing women, women playing men, or people playing someone of a different race. That of course runs into numerous problems with characterisations based on sex or race that are, at best, unimaginative, and at worst, horribly bigoted. But, on the whole, I always feel that if anyone can play a role, anyone should. Gay actors can play straight characters, straight characters can play gay characters, English actors can play French characters, French actors can play English characters and so on and so on. Give everyone a fair shot at everything.

However, disability is the glaring exception. The examples I’ve just given are a two-way street, but here it’s a one-way street. Actors without visible disabilities can play a character with a disability perfectly well, but it is extremely rare that actors with a visible disability get the same opportunity the other way round. Sure, some people act a disability superbly, but every time this happens it’s one less opportunity for someone who actually has that disability. That, I believe, is not fair. If it was up to me, I would make a rule that if you’re casting a character with a visible disability, you should, if possible, give it to an actor with that disability. I don’t normally like telling people who they can and can’t cast, but this I think is the bare minimum needed so that actors with visible disabilities stand a fair chance against everyone else.

Even then, I have major doubts that this is enough. Off-hand (and anyone who’s researched this is welcome to give better information), I can think of very few plays that actually have a disabled character. And then there’s the question of whether these are decent roles or just tired stereotypes – I can’t imagine I’d be terribly thrilled, for instance, if my only acting opportunities were panto and the stock Little People are Surreal trope. So this is why the few plays I’ve seen which included disabled actors – even though I didn’t comment on this – are important. They found ways to include them in the cast without causing the story to cease to ring true. Sometimes it is a representational play where the actors don’t need to look like the people they play; other times, they’ve just gone ahead and cast someone into an existing play.

Francesca Mills in CyranoNorthern Broadsides has been pretty good at it this year. As well as Richard III, before that there was Cyrano de Bergerac, which – as well has being another excellent adaptation from McAndrew and Nelson – included Francesca Mills in the ensemble who was by all accounts the star of the show. And, crucially, they made it look like the part was written for her all along. Can this be used as a diversity blueprint for other plays? My guess is no – that was something that worked for this play and this play only. But the point proven by this play and other plays is that it doesn’t wash to produce play after play and say there’s no parts of disabled characters any more. The opportunities to include actors with disabilities are there if you make the effort.

So that brings us to Richard. Traditionally played by your top-grade actor with every acclamation to his name strapping on a hunchback and going “And now, I shall murder my nephews in the Tower! Bwuahahahahahahaha!” (I might not have transcribed that line correctly.) But does it have to be a hunchback? I’m that last person to claim to be a Shakespeare expert, but even I know the point of the play is Richard of York went bad because the rest of the world treated him as an outcast for how he looked. True, a different physical disability is not 100% faithful to the script, but this is no more radical than transplanting the settings of Shakespeare’s plays to different times and places, which happens all the time. That’s not to say that actors with no disabilities should never be cast as Bad King Dick again, but in a world where decent roles for disabled actors seem to be far and few between, what Northern Broadsides has done is such an obvious idea it’s a wonder why this hasn’t been done before.

Richard III is not a magic bullet that’s going to single-handedly solve this issue. Of course there’s no easy solution. Mat Fraser is clearly proud to have taken on this role, but perhaps there’s other actors in similar position who don’t like the idea of their disability being such a strong defining feature of their character. All this production can do be be another small step in the right direction for theatre. But it’s an important step, because this challenges head-on the idea roles never played by disabled actors before are off-limits. We are starting to work out that it’s stupid to specify a part as “white only” if your only reason is that it’s always been played by a white actor before, and it’s high time the same was said about disabilities. In both cases, we have a long and difficult conversation ahead of us on when it is and isn’t acceptable to specify who will and won’t be considered for casting. But it’s a conversation we need to start having – and hats off to Northern Broadsides for helping us start it.

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