Disabled members of the theatre and arts communities have told a London theatre they are “outraged and disappointed” by its decision to cast an actor without a physical impairment in the role of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
They have described the decision by Shakespeare’s Globe to cast its artistic director Michelle Terry as Richard (pictured) – who describes himself in the play as “deformed” and in life had scoliosis – as “offensive and distasteful”.
The play is to be shown from May at the theatre on the bank of the Thames in London.
A letter to the theatre, drafted by the Disabled Artists Alliance, has now been signed by at least 20 creative organisations, and nearly 200 individuals, most of them disabled actors, writers and directors.
In their letter, they say that Richard III is an “iconic disabled character” who is “one of the first characters who experiences and documents the socialised effect of an attitudinally disabling society”.
The play makes it clear, they say, that Richard’s identity “is directly linked to his physical impairment, or self-titled ‘deformity’” and his disabled identity “is imbued and integral to all corners of the script”.
The role, they say, “belongs to us”.
They add: “Disability means exclusion, ostracisation, pain, anger, a lifetime of fighting for basic rights.
“It isn’t something one can wear for the sake of a show, and remove in the dressing room.”
And they also link the casting decision to the impact on disabled people of years of austerity and attacks on disabled people’s rights.
They say in the letter: “After the incredible hardship that we have suffered over the last few years that has seen rights stripped away by this government, leaving our community depleted, tired, and forgotten, it is more important than ever to stand with us and work harder to implement more inclusive working practices and casting ethos.”
Jess Thom, co-artistic director of Touretteshero, and one of the disabled artists who signed the letter, said: “The practice of non-disabled actors taking on disabled roles is deeply damaging; it often leads to stereotyped patronising portrayals that are celebrated by non-disabled people, which has a detrimental impact on disabled people.
“It also means that disabled actors don’t get the opportunity to play the few disabled characters in the theatrical cannon.
“Inauthentic casting means that disability is often reduced to the mimicry of physical impairments, which lacks the nuance that disabled performers can bring to these roles.”
In a response from the Globe (PDF) to concerns raised by the casting, Terry said she would “not be playing Richard with a visible or physical impairment”.
She said: “I acknowledge that for many, Richard III is an iconic disabled figure.
“I understand that this feels like a missed opportunity for a disabled artist to play a disabled character on a major UK stage, but it will come around again.
“This production in no way wants to undermine the need for disabled characters, disabled stories to be told or to diminish the ambition for greater representation in our industry.”
She said their new interpretation of the play “does not mean that we have forgotten disability” as the “whole play is saturated with ableism that we will address and unpack throughout the process”.
She added: “Richard III is not the only character or play for these conversations to be held and much needed change to be made, but this moment has presented itself as an opportunity to push that conversation forward.
“We must come together as a sector, from all our respective communities, and collectively address the inequities and injustices in our industry and our society.”
But Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of the disabled-led theatre company Birds of Paradise, told Disability News Service: “Ultimately, anyone can play any part they wish, but companies – especially publicly-funded theatres – need to be able to stand by the decisions they make.
“In doing what they have, the Globe have forced a conversation – I’d like to think they’ve done that on purpose, but it doesn’t appear to be the case.
“The wider public doesn’t see disability as a cultural experience – they see it as just ‘not being able to do something’.
“Cripping up plays into that idea – that any actor can just imagine what it’s like to be disabled people.”
Actors “are going to make assumptions when they do that – potentially ableist assumptions.
“And then we view what that actor does by how well they ‘played disabled’, rather than talking about the actual story.”
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