At the same time, Hughes points out that the character is much more than his disability: “Richard is incredibly charismatic, manipulative and intelligent. He is capable of a lot, and he is handicapped. Shakespeare did all these things to him. This is echoed by Spiller: “Just because he’s disabled and therefore bad doesn’t mean he does these horrible things. He is a dictator who happens to be handicapped.”
The casting question
If Richard only “finds himself” disabled, does that justify hiring non-disabled actors in the role? One of literature’s most charismatic villains, he’s theatrical catnip, with big-name able-bodied actors from Olivier to Washington, Mark Rylance, Kevin Spacey, Ralph Fiennes and Sir Ian McKellen all tackling to the role – often using dodgy props.
Dr Hailey Bachrach, Shakespeare scholar at the University of Roehampton, points out that “for generations leading men like [18th-Century actor] David Garrick played Richard without any sign of disability”, but “there is a disturbing history of actors putting on the kinds of prosthetics and mimicry that we have long recognized as utterly inappropriate for portraying other marginalized groups on stage. , while continuing to collectively accept when it comes to handicap performance.”
Many of these performances, of course, predate current conversations about representation. Sir Anthony Sher – the late husband of Gregory Doran, the outgoing artistic director of the RSC, who directs this latest production – won acclaim in 1984 as Richard who moved on stage on crutches. But as recently as 2016, the BBC’s series of adaptations of Shakespeare’s history plays The Hollow Crown featured Benedict Cumberbatch (whose Sherlock bandmate Martin Freeman also played Richard on stage) delivering the famous monologue “Winter of Discontent” shirtless, to better display his CGI-hump.
For Hughes, such a gadget should be consigned to history. Casting able-bodied actors also wastes an opportunity to address the appalling underrepresentation of people with disabilities on stage and screen. “Richard is written as disabled, so let’s give disabled actors this rich character. Every disability, every disabled actor will bring something unexpected and new, a different depth that you just won’t get from a non-disabled actor. “
Hughes isn’t the first disabled actor to play Richard – others include Mat Fraser for the Northern Broadsides theater company in 2017 and Daniel Monks in the 2019 Donmar Warehouse production of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, which transposes the plot from Richard III in an American high school. Spiller, whose theater company focuses on marginalized performers, hopes it’s a sign of a change that’s long overdue: “It’s been a role for non-disabled performers for far too long. line of disabled actors playing Richard.”
Richard III runs until October 8 at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford Upon Avon. It will also be screened in UK cinemas from 28 September; for more information visit rsc.org.uk
If you want to comment on this story or anything else you’ve seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.