No, you don’t need to be disabled to play Richard III

Actors don’t need to share the ‘lived experience’ of their characters.

Lauren Smith

Topics Culture Identity Politics UK

The Globe Theatre in London has come under fire for a supposedly controversial casting choice. Last week, it was announced that Michelle Terry, who is also the Globe’s artistic director, would be taking on the titular role in Shakespeare’s Richard III later this summer. Outrage immediately ensued. Because according to identitarian activists, Terry doesn’t have the ‘lived experience’ needed to play the scheming king.

Certainly, there are some pretty glaring differences between Michelle Terry and Richard III. For one thing, Terry is a woman and Richard, obviously, was a man. But what has actually upset the usual suspects is the fact that Terry is not physically disabled.

The Disabled Artists Alliance published an open letter this week, signed by more than 100 people and organisations in the arts, demanding ‘an immediate recast of Richard’. The signatories claim that it is ‘offensive and distasteful for Richard to be portrayed by someone outside the [disabled] community’. Casting an able-bodied person as Richard, it says, ‘reduces disability down to a disguise and physical act’. Actor Ben Wilson even accused Terry of ‘cripping up’ for the role.

Infamously, Richard is described in Shakespeare’s play as ‘deformed, unfinish’d’. But it was not until 2012, when his remains were discovered beneath a car park in Leicester, that it became clear which disability he suffered from. It turned out he had scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine. Since then, he has been ‘reclaimed’ as a sort of disabled icon. This has put theatre companies under huge pressure to only cast actors from the ‘disabled community’.

Interestingly, most disabled actors who have played the usurper king do not actually suffer from scoliosis. Mat Fraser, who played Richard in numerous 2017 productions, was a victim of the Thalidomide scandal, which stunted the growth of his arms. Arthur Hughes, who played the lead at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in 2022, has radial dysplasia, which has left him with no thumb or radius bone in his right arm. Surely, according to the logic of the disability activists, none of these actors is truly qualified to play the king, either? Sure, they might all have experience living as a disabled person. But how can we be sure that their ‘lived experience’ was anything like dear old Richard’s, given their very different conditions?

Of course, the demand that an actor share Richard’s ‘lived experience’ is absurd on the face of it. Yes, Michelle Terry is not disabled, or a man. But nor does she or any of her acting rivals have experience ruling over 15th-century England. Or of being dug up from a car park, for that matter.

Obviously, none of this really matters. It’s called acting for a reason. The beauty of theatre is that people are able to go on stage and pretend to be someone they are not. To say things that they would never normally say – including the words of Shakespeare, which have resonated throughout the ages.

Since the play was first performed in 1633, Richard III has almost always been played by an able-bodied actor. In modern times, both Benedict Cumberbatch and Ralph Fiennes have taken on the role. It is only today, in our era of hyper-identitarianism, that the question of whether an actor has a disability or not is given such undue significance.

So enough with this pig-headed literalism. Let actors act.

Lauren Smith is a staff writer at spiked.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Culture Identity Politics UK


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