Kathryn Hunter’s Richard III. Image: Donald Cooper / Alamy

Deformed, unfinished?

A new production of ‘Richard III’ has provoked an argument over who should—and who shouldn’t—get to play the king
February 28, 2024

In summer 2003, Shakespeare’s Globe staged a production of Richard III. The eponymous villain was played by Kathryn Hunter, then the country’s leading disabled actor. In keeping with the Globe’s established mandate to play with gender expectations, Hunter led an all-female cast, a counterpoint to the same season’s all-male Richard II starring then Globe actor-manager Mark Rylance.

Hunter’s body had been transformed after a car crash at drama school, which she would later describe in 2022 as “a suicide attempt”. Her recovery left her with both areas of newly restricted movement and sites of hyper-flexibility, which she would harness as an expert practitioner of the French mime tradition. “Suddenly I became aware of different parts of the body and how they can speak,” she would later say. Of her performance as the “hunchbacked toad” Richard III at the Globe, the critic Lyn Gardner wrote: “It is not just his limbs that are twisted, but his sense of humour, too.”

Ever since, the Globe has presented itself as a leading centre for the work of disabled actors. This spring, the Duchess of Malfi will be played by Francesca Mills, an actor with achondroplasia. The announcement for this summer’s season revealed that deaf actor Nadia Nadarajah would play Cleopatra—using British Sign Language, just as she did to play As You Like It’s Celia in the same venue in 2018 and 2019. The casting announcement for Nadarajah, however, was overshadowed by a row over the news that Richard III will be played by the Globe’s artistic director, Michelle Terry.

Terry is not disabled—or so it is publicly assumed. Defending her choice, the Globe asserted that “the Shakespearean canon is based on a foundation of anti-literalism and therefore all artists should have the right to play all parts”. Those of us who value theatre as an act of radical empathy have applauded. But, in practice, it’s hard to imagine today’s Globe casting a non-black actor as Othello or a non-Jewish actor as Shylock.

“The battle for Richard III,” as the blind actor Ben Wilson terms it, has been hotting up in recent years. The controversy is complicated by the tension between Shakespeare’s fictional imagining of Richard III and our knowledge of the historical figure, as well as by competing models of disability and theatrical practice. At the heart of the row is the question of who—if anyone—can claim ownership of Richard. Given the play’s very pre-modern equation of disability with villainy, not everyone is convinced the disabled community should claim him at all.

The battle for ‘Richard III’ has been hotting up in recent years

Shakespeare’s Richard III appears to have been born visibly disabled, such that he has from childhood been an object of horror. There is a strong suggestion that his disabilities derive from premature birth: Richard opens the play by telling us he was “Deform’d, unfinish’d, sent before my time / Into this breathing world, scarce half made up”. There is little evidence that the historical Richard III had a disability this visible; Shakespeare, notoriously, worked from material crafted by Tudor propagandists such as John Morton and Thomas More, who were determined to present the Yorkist king as an unnatural usurper. Neither do Shakespeare’s descriptions of Richard conform well to any modern medical diagnosis; they change and conflict with the perspectives of the characters who voice them.

Images from the 2012 discovery of the real Richard III’s body in a Leicester car park have promoted the popular assumption that he had a major curvature of the spine. Yet, although the skeleton shows the presence of scoliosis, which Richard’s Tudor rivals seem to have opportunistically exaggerated, medical analysis shows that it would have been only lightly visible and, even then, not until adulthood. The curvature of the spine is much more visible when the body is literally fleshless, a skeleton.

As the University of Leicester forensic scientists who exhumed Richard’s skeleton write: “The physical disfigurement from Richard’s scoliosis was probably slight. His torso would have been short relative to the length of his limbs, and his right shoulder a little higher than the left. However, a good tailor and custom-made armour could have minimised the visual impact of this.... There is no evidence that Richard would have walked with an overt limp.” Richard’s scoliosis gave his enemies enough to work with as they inflamed the worst medieval prejudices against disabled people—but he need not have experienced it as a defining characteristic.

Shakespeare’s text, however, establishes Richard’s physical difference as the major factor in his ostracism by his family—and thus in the development of the character’s drive to usurp both his brother and nephews. It is not the only factor in Richard’s personality, nor is disability the only theme in the play. But there has been a long tradition of grotesque performances by non-disabled actors hamming up Richard’s disability, and this has caused pain to disabled people.

Some leading actors appear to have been more concerned by the pain caused to themselves. As recently as 2016, Ralph Fiennes was complaining to the BBC’s Front Row that faking a hunchback in his Almeida Theatre production was leaving him in discomfort and in need of regular massages: “I’m monitoring it day by day because it’s three hours where you're putting your spine out of true [alignment].” Kevin Spacey, who cast himself in the role while serving as artistic director of the Old Vic, said: “I talked to a bunch of actors who played Richard III before I did and they all said to me: ‘Be careful... I threw my neck out, my back, my knee, my leg...’” Ian McKellan avoided this by wearing a prosthetic hump while filming his own performance as Richard in Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film.

To many disabled actors, such performances constitute “cripping up”, a term coined by the playwright Kaite O’Reilly. In her 2002 play Peeling, staged by the pioneering disabled theatre company Graeae, a character describes it as “the 21st century’s answer to blacking up”. Some black actors have challenged the simplicity of that analogy, not least because of the fluid nature of disability. Like race, disability is socially constructed; unlike race, disability is not always visible. When I asked the Globe whether Terry had a non-visible disability, I was told: “Not one that she chooses to disclose.”

More broadly, the Globe quite reasonably pointed out to me that it would be illegal to disclose the medical statuses or protected characteristics of any members of its creative teams. A few years ago, I interviewed Adrian Schiller when he prepared to play Shylock at the Globe, and he pushed back at the pressure on him to “out” himself as Jewish to play the role (“It could be, for a man, as intrusive as, ‘Are you circumcised?’”) Like Jewish heritage or sexual identities, it seems unfair for us to order actors to disclose their exact relationship with disability.

Definitions of disability change frequently: in 1997, Anthony Sher was dubiously described as the RSC’s first “disabled Richard III”, when he played the role a few years after tearing his Achilles tendon. More recently, that achievement was credited to Arthur Hughes, who played the role in 2022 and has limb difference with radial dysplasia.

Definitions of disability change frequently

Clearly, we would not today accept a Shylock who wears a prosthetic nose so as to conform to Jewish stereotypes. It is reasonable to hope for the end of the prosthetic humpback in Richard III. But to some disabled artists, including the consortium of organisations that have called for Terry to step down from the role, even casting a non-disabled Richard constitutes “cripping up”. Even when the role isn’t interpreted as disabled at all.

Terry has responded to the row by revealing that she will not play Richard “with a visible or physical impairment”. Instead, her production will focus on Richard’s behaviour as a sexual predator. If Richard resents his “misshapen” appearance, it is because he is ugly and, like Harvey Weinstein, forced to rely on power and force for sexual conquest. Many male-directed productions have staged Richard’s sadism for titillation; notoriously when, in 2016, the Almeida showed Ralph Fiennes’s version of the character raping a woman on stage. Terry’s “lived experience” as a woman, her defenders argue, is essential to unlocking the play not as a story of disability—but of male violence. We won’t see whether Terry’s interpretation works until May, when the show opens.

There is a whiff of misogyny, those same defenders argue, in the outrage at Terry casting herself in a lead role. (She has been accused of “privilege” and “taking up space”.) The Globe’s actor-manager model requires a professional actor to lead the team, from the stage. In fact, Terry is contractually obliged to appear in her own productions, under the terms of her employment at the Globe. No one attacked her predecessor, Mark Rylance, for doing the same. Rylance was famed for his “original practices” productions—all-male casts that helped us to envision Shakespeare’s own all-male company—but it froze out female performers.

Not everyone will buy this defence, but it exposes the tension between various models of practice at the Globe, none of which guarantees a perfectly equitable share of roles between different identity groups. The alternative, of course, is that we stop worrying about whether any Shakespearian role belongs to a protected group. As one director put it to me, “If you tell an actor they can only play within their own experience, there’s a whole acting muscle you’re telling them not to use.” In the current climate, however, not a single major director would say that on the record.