Sara Beer in ‘richard iii redux’. Photo by Paddy Faulkner panopticphotography
It is with a sad (but tired) heart I write this in the beautiful Small World Theatre – @theatrbydbychan – in Cardigan, the end of the richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III tour, and the venue closest to The Llanarth Group’s base. I’m writing in the darkened auditorium as our intrepid stage manager and general all round good egg Jacqui George focuses the lights and prepares for this evening’s performance. I love get-ins and techs – unusual, I am consistently told, for a playwright. I believe that theatre is a collaborative process and this is when the blueprint I wrote comes into being…
Setting up in Small World Theatre (the view as I write)
We’ve had an incredible response to the project, and already receiving invitations to festivals and other venues, so I’m sure this will not be the last time ‘the brilliant Sara Beer’ takes on the role of Richard…. What follows in this blog are links to reviews, articles, and interviews.
First up, the essay I wrote for Howl Round about ‘Cripping the Crip’ and reclaiming that poster-boy of embodied difference, Richard III. Buzz magazine interviewed performer Sara Beer, and she wrote In my Words for Arts Scene in Wales. Director and co-writer Phillip Zarrilli reflected on revising, remixing and reinventing Shakespeare for Wales Arts Review
The joys of rural touring….
Our reviews universally complimented Sara’s performances – here’s some soundbites and links, below:
Disability Arts Online Magazine: ‘Sara Beer is ‘really funny. I mean, very, very funny…[she] has…oodles and oodles of on-stage charm. Audiences love her, whether she’s sending herself up as a would-be diva or revealing her younger self. This audience was no exception, laughing one moment and then the next hanging on her every word… go and see it. You won’t regret it.’
richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III
Arts Scene in Wales:‘…unpredictable… evokes laughter and reflection in equal measure…intimate…witty…ingenious…commanding and nuanced…thought provking…uncompromisingly funny…great power and impact…brave…’
British Theatre Guide:‘…a bold, informative…. and irreverently amusing 70 minutes of theatre.’
Weeping Tudor Productions (5*): ‘dynamite theatre… an absorbing exercise in personal insight, humour, pathos and historical amendments’.
Theatre Wales Review: ‘Sara Beer’s Richard is…captivating…confirmed by the loud, loving, standing ovation…’
Wales Arts Review: ‘…Redux is a strong piece of work… Redux is full of grenades…dropped with disarming gentility by Beer….Beer is…charming and erudite, extremely good company…a damning indictment of an industry that actively discourages disabled actors from entering…’
We thank all the audiences who came and laughed, who listened so intently who engaged and applauded. We thank our funders Arts Council Wales and the venues who invited us into their realms. We shall be back…..
Sara Beer in ‘richard iii redux’. Photo by Paddy Faulkner panopticphotography
And so it comes around… and appropriately, on International Women’s Day – the world premiere of richard iii redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] Richard III… Delighted to discover we’re sold out tonight at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff – it seems such a terrific way to celebrate today – a one woman show, taking on an iconic male role, subverting it, commenting on it, remixing it and making it her own….. And a disabled woman performer in a powerful role, commanding centre-stage…. I am so proud of the work Sara is doing, and so grateful to the talented and committed artists, designers, and crew working with The Llanarth Group.
The past few days have been tech and dress rehearsals, where Paddy Faulkner of panopticphotography took these images. Our final dress this afternoon was crowned with an interview with @MadeInCardiff TV – Sara Beer, director Phillip Zarrilli and I all talking about our particular processes and perspectives on the project, which should be going out over the next three nights.
We also spoke with Nicola Heywood Thomas on BBC Radio Wales Arts Show, which you can listen again to, or download as a podcast here
@Buzz_Magazine also previewed the show in their March 2018 edition, on page 28, here
Sara Beerin richard iii redux. Photo by Paddy Faulkner panopticphotography
We are determined to make the show as accessible as possible, and so I am touring with the production as live captioner. I think this is a first. I’ve never heard of the playwright/dramaturg taking a place in the on-stage tech corner – responsible for projecting her text onto the screens, matching the performer’s spoken words. This is a production where there are no smoke and mirrors – everything is transparent and in view, which matches the metatheatrical nature of the performance. So many productions make a song and dance about captioning one show in a whole run – and that’s great, but not enough… we will caption every single performance, from Cardiff, Aberystwyth, to Theatre Clwyd in Mold, from The Torch at Milford Haven, to Small World Theatre in Cardigan. Captioning makes a production more accessible for all sorts of audience members, and creates an additional interesting aesthetic, as can be seen by Paddy’s photograph, above.
We are so excited to be finally bringing this production before an audience tonight – Sara is ready for her public! – and celebrating international women’s day, putting women usually left off-stage or in the shadows in full light, centre-stage.
From richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III video montage by Paul Whittaker
Discussions of representation on our screens, theatres, and opera stages have taken center stage recently, particularly in arguments about lack of diversity in casting regarding cultural heritage, race, and gender identification. In the UK cross-gender casting has become mainstream with Phyllida Lloyd’s celebrated trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a women’s prison, Maxine Peake’s 2015 Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange,and Glenda Jackson winning Best Actress in last year’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards for her “magnificent” King Lear at London’s Old Vic. So far so good. Yet in the midst of all this welcome talk about diversity and parity, there is an area still overlooked: neuro-diversity and atypical embodiment—and the actors who portray characters with disabilities.
In 2002, Graeae Theatre Company commissioned me to write peeling, a metatheatrical satire on our industry’s relationship to disability, for one Deaf and two disabled female actors. At a point in the play when discussing the Academy Awards, one of the characters rolls her eyes at nondisabled actors being wreathed in awards for impersonating someone like her, a woman with atypical embodiment, and says, “Cripping-up is the twenty-first century’s answer to blacking up.” The added sting is that she and her two companions are professional actors, but are never invited to audition like “real actors, for real plays.” Instead, they are part of the chorus, the “right-on ticks on an equal opportunities monitoring form,” left to languish in the shadows, stuck at the back of the stage behind the scenery when they are “off,” since the backstage dressing rooms are inaccessible.
Sixteen years since peeling premiered, little seems to have changed.
Or has it?
The political and cultural strengths of casting disabled performers and utilizing the aesthetics of access have finally started to infiltrate the UK’s theatre scene, with initiatives like Ramps on the Moon, a collaborative network of six National Portfolio Organisations theatres embedding accessibility and inclusivity in the heart of their process and productions.
Further good news came in 2017 when Northern Broadside cast disabled icon Mat Fraser in their production of Richard III. This delighted me, not simply for the important decision to cast an actor with atypical embodiment in a leading role that is usually “cripped up,” but because as someone who has worked with Mat on various projects, I know that his talents have been mournfully underused. Here, finally, was an opportunity for him to reveal his considerable performance skills and take his place amongst the pantheon of celebrated (nondisabled) actors who have played Richard in the past. As Fraser’s performance was met with critical acclaim, I returned to the original text. The more I reflected on Shakespeare’s play and “his” Richard, the more I was struck by questions about physical difference and representation—questions which would not go away.
In “The Necessity of Diverse Voices in Theatre Regarding Disability and Difference,” I wrote about the necessity for diverse “voices” and bodies on our stages, and how, for millennia, disability has been used in the Western theatrical canon as a metaphor for the human condition. All too often physical difference represents considerably more than the sum of body parts, and never has it been more evident than with the epitome of evil—wickedness personified in the character of Richard III.
As Shakespeare’s villain schemes and murders his way to power, he represents perhaps the original “evil genius.” In act 1, scene 1 Shakespeare lays out clearly the cause and logic of Richard’s sociopathic behavior:
I that am rudely stamped…
Deformed, unfinished, sent before my time
Into this breathing world scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them…
He is “not shaped for sportive tricks/ Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass…” and so is deprived of “love’s majesty.”
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover…
I am determined to prove a villain…
In contemporary drama, this thwarted, bitter, “twisted body, twisted mind” trope serves as a shortcut to character and narrative. According to theatre practitioner and disability performance scholar Victoria Anne Lewis in her essay The Dramaturgy of Disability, the stereotype of physical difference denoting evil is now so ingrained in the public imagination, that screenwriting manuals suggest rookie writers give their villains a limp or amputated limb as a way to instantly signify their dangerousness. Shakespeare’s efforts, of course, cannot and should not be aligned with such “hack” approaches, but nevertheless his “hideous… deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked cripple” (description from Thomas Ostermier’s production of Richard III) is murderous and depraved as a direct consequence of his physical impairment.
In 2016, speaking with The Guardian newspaperabout his interpretation in the Schaubuhne/Barbican production, director Thomas Ostemier stressed the necessity of nondisabled actor Lars Eidinger amplifying Richard’s physical difference with a visibly fake hump, neck and teeth braces, a pronounced limp and an oversized shoe: “For Richard, his disability is part of his suffering, his destiny…” Cassidy Dawn Graves in HowlRound recently addressed Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Richard III and questioned this portrayal.
A similar tack was taken by Anthony Sher in his book The Year of the King, which documents his process of creating and performing Richard III for the RSC at Stratford in 1984. Conferring with his personal psychologist, Sher concluded Richard’s “wickedness” was an act of revenge directly linked to the lack of his mother’s love and the pain, self-loathing, and lack of a “sense of self” such withholding of affection creates.
This notion of disability or physical difference being embroiled in suffering is ubiquitous in our theatrical canon, and points, to a major misunderstanding. Although it occurs in a huge number of plays, seldom have the writers been disabled themselves, or written from that perspective, which might explain why theatrical depictions of disability differs so significantly from lived experience. Of course, there may be those who do feel they “suffer from” a particular condition, but the majority of people who identify culturally or politically as disabled don’t necessarily perceive themselves as “suffering” or being the victim of some kind of tragic misfortune. However, this equation of “suffering equals revenge” ignites dramatic deadwood, and has been widely used as a kind of psychological “truth.”
Which brings me back to the tragedy of Richard III and my concerns.
Mat Fraser’s casting as Richard III last year was a significant milestone in the struggle for parity and representation in our UK theatres. Yet, given how monstrous Shakespeare’s Richard is, and how far he deviates from historical accounts of the real monarch—is having a disabled actor play a distorted disabled part “enough”? It may create more diversity on stage, but what has been termed “authentic casting” does not challenge problematic underlying assumptions and negative associations of difference in the script.
It is of course absurd to expect Shakespeare to have a twenty-first century sensibility, and I am wary of political correctness, but engaging with Richard III has raised an important challenge for me: Given how I would never wish to bowdlerize classic texts, nor criticize them for failing to have current cultural and political perspectives, how might I as a theatremaker dialogue with these issues and Shakespeare’s magnificently malignant Richard III?
Is it time to reclaim Richard—and to recrip the crip?
Richard III: Bogeyman. Villain. Evil incarnate. Or is he? What if he is she? What if the “bottled spider” is portrayed by someone funny, female, feminist, and with the same form of scoliosis? How might the story change, the body change, the acting change, and the character change when explored by a disabled actress with deadly comic timing? And how would previous nondisabled Richards measure up?
Director and co-creator Phillip Zarrilli explains:
Richard III redux is not a performance of Shakespeare’s play. Rather, it is a roughing up, remixing, and revisitation of the problematic set of assumptions and premises on which Shakespeare (falsely) (mis)shaped his Richard as a “poisonous bunch-back’ed toad,” “deform’d, unfinish’d…villain.”
Our approach has involved historical research into the “real” Richard III, discovering a popular, reforming monarch, who was ferocious in battle, who led thousands of willing soldiers into conflict during the long War(s) of the Roses. Following the discovery of his skeleton in a car park in Leicester in 2013, we know he was indeed disabled, with a form of scoliosis, but he did not have the withered arm, limp, club foot and other physical deformities which have been layered onto his fictive body since the Elizabethan era.
History, we are told, is written by the victors—and it seems like the record of Richard III, the last of the Plantagenets, was besmirched by the commentators and documenters of the new Tudor royal house once Henry VII claimed the throne after the battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed. Intriguingly, there is compelling evidence that Shakespeare’s creation of the monstrous Richard can be viewed as character assassination and Tudor propaganda, to please powerful patrons.
This demonizing fiction has been further magnified in contemporary “star vehicle” turns in which actors like Kevin Spacey, Anthony Sher, Al Pacino, and Lars Eidinger have distorted Richard’s body to make him even more repugnant. Their interpretations of the role, plus their colorful and often ingenious use of prosthetics have also come under the lens as we deconstruct this “othering.”
The performance is a one-woman show, a mosaic with several alternative lenses, voices, and roles through which Sara Beer’s richard iii is remixed. As a company all identifying as disabled, we are working from a disability perspective, but true to crip culture, the tone is joyously irreverent as we interweave stories about acting, difference, and a maligned historical figure through an unreliable narrator.
As Phillip Zarrilli’s opening text goes:
I… one of those from the margins,
come here now to stand before you
and reclaim what is mine-own:
this crooked shape,
this self-same body
that has been taken
from me and mine.
It is a reclaiming. There is also something immensely powerful about a small woman, gilded in chainmail, standing proud and crooked, saying these lines.
This essay originally appeared in Howlround, with thanks.
From richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III video montage by Paul Whittaker
The end is now in sight…. within a fortnight we will be premiering this new performance at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff, on International Women’s Day, 8th March.
Yesterday morning I finished writing the final, deviously ingenious threading-it-all-together monologue – creating a fug of blue air from inventive Irish cursing when my laptop failed to save what I had just completed – and all was lost…
It’s every writer’s nightmare… We just manage to get, to our satisfaction, a version down – it makes dramaturgical sense, all journeys and through-lines seem complete, there is hopefully no clunky exposition, and the text remains in the idiosyncratic syntax of the character voice(s)… Satisfied, we press ‘save’, then ‘print’ – and the whole world goes blank and dark screened…. The ‘pooter has crashed – no, it seems to have had the equivalent of a cardiac arrest – and the work has not been saved….
Even as I ran around the house in my pyjamas, yelling guttural Anglo Saxon phrases and being politely ignored by the company, I knew that deviously ingenious monologue was gone forever… I tried to calm myself with stories of Chekov – or was it Ibsen? – destroying completed drafts of plays in order to slash and burn, then rewrite the stronger, better version…. and even though I managed to settle down enough to try and recreate what I had completed just moments before, I know some of that vital DNA is missing… It’ll work, but it hasn’t the ease and shine of the material lost.
Or so perhaps it will always seem when bereft – the unsaved monologue will always be ‘the one that got away’ – the perfectly polished, apparently effortless speech.
But we are done, we have a complete script, the wondrous Sara Beer is learning it and doing magical things with my words in the studio with director Phillip Zarrilli…. There will be time to buff and amend, tinker and improve before Sara sets out in front of an audience – and who knows, maybe by then the recreated speech will have the lustre and gleam of that perfect lost one….?
We’ve had a lot of interest in the production, and we’ve been writing essays for various journals about our process.
Sara Beer’s ‘In My Own Words: Playing Three Personas’ for Arts Scene in Wales can be accessed here
My article “for Exeunt magazine on cripping up, and how her new production offers a witty, feminist, alternative disability perspective on Shakespeare’s history play” can be readhere.
Kaite O’Reilly writes on creating a witty, feminist, alternative disability perspective on “that veritable poster-boy of embodied difference, Shakespeare’s Richard III.” Original article here.
A female Richard III…. There’s nothing unusual about that in these days of cross-gender casting, and the success of Glenda Jackson’s King Lear at the Old Vic, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet at The Royal Exchange, or Phyllida Lloyd’s trilogy of Shakespeare plays set in a fictional women’s prison. Cross-gender casting has all but gone mainstream, a positive part of the on-going discussion about parity, diversity, and representation on our screens, theatres and opera stages. In film, we’re going through a welcome phase of older women leads and central mother/daughter relationships (Lady Bird; I, Tonya, et al) There is also heartening change in the representation of people of colour, with the release of films including Moonlight and The Black Panther. Yet in the midst of all this welcome change, there is still one aspect largely overlooked, especially in our theatres: the representation of physical difference and the actors who portray characters with disabilities.
There are many parallels between race and disability in both historical portrayal and popular culture representation. People of colour on stage and in film have been limited until quite recently to negative and supporting roles, while the disabled character is largely either the victim or the villain… But at least black and minority actors got to play these roles, however problematic – very few disabled performers have had the opportunity to play any part, however stereotypical, whilst leading disabled character roles are largely the preserve of celebrity actors. It seems that physical or neuro-diverse transformation is still perceived as the pinnacle of actorly challenge and skill, an opinion reflected in the industry, which is why playing a crip’ as a non-disabled thesp’ is invariably an award-winning role.
As a dramaturg and playwright who works in disability arts and culture, as well as the so-called ‘mainstream’, I’ve spent much of my career trying to follow Gandhi’s maxim of being the change I want to see in the world. This has largely entailed writing parts specifically for Deaf and disabled performers that lie outside the usual narrow confines of victim, psychopath, or as inspirational porn. I’ve tried to write complex, sexy, funny, dangerous, lovable, cheating, loyal, sensitive characters who are as fucked-up or sorted as their hearing, non-disabled counterparts. I’ve tried to find narratives that are more than medical dramas linked solely to a diagnosis, or the character’s relationship to herself as outsider.
Since the Ancient Greeks disability has been used as a dramaturgical tool to scare, warn, explain, or remind us of our mortality, and the inevitable, inescapable cycle of life. Fearful and negative human traits have been personified by disabled characters for so long, these harmful fictions have become ingrained and considered ‘truth’, disability studies academics maintain. One of my passions and great joys as a theatre maker has been to try and ‘answer back’ to these negative or reductive portrayals of difference, and to redress or subvert some of these fictions.
Which brings me to my current project, and that veritable poster-boy of embodied difference, Shakespeare’s Richard III, the personification of evil.
This surely is the non-disabled actor’s Everest, the part to relish deforming and making as monstrous as possible. And in richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III we have deconstructed them all, from Olivier’s nasal psychopath to Spacey’s leg-braced Gadaffi, McKellen’s black shirted fascist to Sher’s double-crutched “bottled spider”, Cumberbatch’s life-like prosthetic to Eidinger’s cushion-hump in Ostemier’s post-dramatic production…
I have known performer/collaborator Sara Beer since the 1980’s when we were both involved in the Disabled People’s Movement and the emerging disability arts and culture scene. Sara was the obvious choice for this project when I first conceived the idea of a one woman show about Richard, from a disability perspective, performed by someone with the same physicality as the historical Richard. It wouldn’t be the first time a disabled actor has played the part. Mat Fraser played Richard III in Northern Broadside’s 2017 production, but given how monstrous Shakespeare’s Richard is, and how far he deviates from historical accounts, I started questioning whether having a disabled actor play a distorted disabled part would be ‘enough’? Would it create diversity and balance, or simply reinforce notions of ‘normalcy’ and negative representations of difference? Out of these questionings with co-creator and director Phillip Zarrilli, the project was born – this would not be a production of Shakespeare – rather, a response to Richard’s portrayal both in Shakespeare’s text and through the actors who have embodied him, viewed through a lens which is female, disabled, and predominantly Welsh.
Phillip is a renowned scholar, director, and actor-trainer, and so has brought a wealth of knowledge about acting to the production. We’ve been joyously irreverent, deconstructing the process of acting itself, as well as the process of creating a character. This expertise has enabled Sara to play various personas, many of them comedic, but ultimately serious, taking the audience on three simultaneous journeys in response to Shakespeare’s Richard III:
– a child’s self-awakening as she unexpectedly finds ‘herself’ IN Shakespeare,
– a professional performer’s journey toward playing Richard, and
– a personal journey through Wales in search of the historical ‘richard’ on the route to Bosworth Battlefield.
It was only after Phillip shared his historical research on the ‘real’ Richard III that I realised just how revised Shakespeare’s hatchet job is. Here is another parallel with the experience of people of colour: just as black figures have been white-washed or erased from history, disabled figures have been either normalised or transformed into the hideous, fearful Other – and in Richard, we have character-assassination of the highest order. It’s a double-whammy. Not only did Shakespeare exaggerate Richard’s atypical embodiment and contort it to represent evil, he also re-wrote history, transforming a reforming, popular King, who led thousands into battle despite his scoliosis, into an evil, murdering coward, ready to give up his kingdom for a horse (contemporary sources state he was offered a horse to flee the battlefield, but he responded his fate would be decided there – either to die at Bosworth, or live as King). It comes perhaps as no surprise that many consider Richard III as a piece of Tudor propaganda, written to please powerful patrons and reiterate their (tenuous) claim to the throne.
But what I’ve outlined here isn’t about saying Richard III should never be performed by someone who isn’t disabled – I’m not censoring or bowdlerizing the Bard, and I have great fondness for old “crook-back” Richard. What we seek to do with richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III is to provide an alternative disability perspective in response to Shakespeare’s construction of evil on the disabled body, which is historically inaccurate. And having a bit of fun as we do it.
Take One Actress + Three Personas = Sara Beer’s richard III redux
One actress takes the audience on three simultaneous journeys in response to Shakespeare’s Richard III—
a child’s self-awakening as she unexpectedly finds ‘herself’ in Shakespeare,
a professional actress’ journey toward playing Richard, and
a personal journey through Wales in search of the historical ‘richard’ on the ‘Henry Tudor trail’.
Sara at Cilgerran Castle, Ceredigion. richard iii redux. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly
Take One measure “cutting wit”, add one measure thoughtful reflection =
Sara Beer in richard III redux
In response to Sara Beer’s performance of the idiosyncratic role of the outsider during the world premiere performances of Kaite O’Reilly’s Cosy, at Wales Millennium Centre in March 2016, here’s what the critics and audience said:
Sara Beer…steals the show…a brilliant and disconcerting comic turn that from the off envelops the play in a sense of the otherworldly. (Gary Raymond, The Arts Desk
…bloody hilarious…a cutting wit… (Denis Lennon, Arts Scene in Wales)
Sara digging up her Richard – richard iii redux.
Maureen (Sara Beer), the strange friend lurking. She is the jokes, the light touch, the kind heart finding the patterns in the confusion of a family tale. (Holly Joy, 3rdActCritics)
…one of the stand-out performances…witty, funny and astutely observed… (Dr. Mark Taubert, Clinical Director and Consultant in Palliative Medicine at Velindre NHS Trust, Cardiff)
Take One Sara Beer x 3 personas + live performance + video + on-stage live-camera = richard III redux
Sara Beer at the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth, 19 August 2017
This post was reproduced from: www.phillipzarrilli.com
One hundred years ago today some women in the UK finally got the right to vote. I’ve been spending the day sharing images of these fighters, campaigners, politicians and visionaries on social media, and giving thanks to those who were ostracised, beaten, arrested, and force-fed, amongst other brutalities, so that I have a say in the governance of the country in which I live.
Welsh supporters of universal suffrage
It is therefore an auspicious day for the trailer of richard iii redux OR Sara Beer is/not Richard III to go live. I am reminded of the immense freedom and privilege I have – to make public work, with support from the Arts Council of Wales, which uses cross-gender casting to interrogate that supposed epitome of the evil male, Richard III. This solo show puts a woman centre-stage – and not only that, but a disabled woman – “one of those from the margins, the shadows, come to stand before you, and reclaim that what is mine own….”
This project owes so much to those pioneers and campaigners I celebrate today. I am reminded again how much I take for granted – how this one woman show is largely possible because of all those who came before, who sought to change our society and power dynamic, whose actions transformed British democracy and paved the way for the freedom in my life and work I enjoy now. It is by design we open on 8th March, International Women’s Day; we wanted to participate in the festivities of that day, but also to remember those without the privilege and security we have.
With thanks to all the “shrieking sisters”, those brilliant and brave women who we remember today.
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