Ben Wilson simmers over the recent Richard III controversy
As a disabled person and a Shakespeare nerd, I struggle with Richard III. It’s a really tricky play. Part of me wants to tear it up and never see it again because it’s strewn with vile ableism from start to finish. My soul sinks every time a new production of Richard III is announced because you just know there’ll be another celebrity cripping up and more harmful stereotypes about disabled people will be reinforced for another generation
I’ve watched productions that only work if you accept the basic premise that disabled people are fundamentally unlovable and a burden on society. That a play with those ideas at its core is at the heart of British theatre and literature’s canon with the glitterati fighting over who gets to play the central role next breaks my heart.
But on the other hand, at the heart of the British theatrical canon is a disabled character, and it’s one of the greatest roles ever written. How cool is that? Here’s a disabled man who wrestles with things that all disabled people wrestle with, who is mocked, scorned, and disrespected and who is underestimated because of his impairment. The fire that this lights up inside him motivates him to rip the world apart.
In the same way that my heart sinks every time a production fails to take seriously the nuanced and difficult issues of disability discussed in the play, my heart soared with joy when I watched Arthur Hughes perform that role at the RSC in 2023. A disabled actor, a brilliant disabled actor, who I admire with all my heart, bringing such nuance and holding all of those difficult and traumatic ideas together with such grace and finesse. That made me believe that this play should not be removed from the canon. It showed me how beautiful this play can be, and how useful it can be in the battle for a better world for disabled people. But only if put in the hands of a talented disabled performer.
Watching that production showed me that Richard doesn’t have to be a caricature taken from us by non-disabled artists to keep us downtrodden. That character can be a symbol, and an angry cry for action on behalf of disabled people. It can be an examination of what happens to a disabled person when their sense of identity is ripped away from them by an ableist society.
Did the rest of the theatre industry learn from that production? It would seem not.
Productions of Richard III with non-disabled actors in the lead role, directed by non-disabled people and with no input from disabled artists continue to be produced up and down the country. This week The Globe announced their new season, and their artistic director Michelle Terry will be playing the role of Richard III. For an artistic director to ignore the vital demands of the disabled community and not only cast a non-disabled actor, but for that non-disabled actor to be themselves, feels incredibly disempowering and disrespectful.
I thought the battle for Richard III was starting to be won, but this feels like taking about 10 steps backwards. Combine this with the recent announcement of not one, but two new productions of Oedipus, starring sighted actors in one of the few iconic blind characters is enough to make you lose all hope.
Theatre industry. Be better. Do better.
At it’s best this industry can be part of the battle to make society a more equal and fairer place. But yet again when it comes to disabled representation, not only is the theatre industry not part of a solution, but it’s very much leading the way in being the problem.
Ben Wilson, January 2024