So I return back to Wales after six weeks in Hong Kong and Singapore, and find myself startled by the vibrant green of grass and the watercolour splashes of pink and blue in the hedgerow as we drive down the narrow lanes. It all feels so very gentle and quaint after the futuristic architecture of Singapore’s waterfront, or the technicolor fantasy that is the newly renovated Sri Krishnan temple on Waterloo Street.
Renovation of the temple on Waterloo Street, Singapore. Photo: Sara Beer
We were fortunate to be staying centrally, in an apartment close to Waterloo Street, and would pass by the temples most days when walking to rehearsals. The Gallery Theatre, where we premiered And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues, is in the impressive National Museums Singapore, built in 1849 and originally called Raffles Library and Museum.
National Museums Singapore
We had a great welcome at NMS, and soon I was acquainted with most of the front of house staff – the curators, security guards, volunteers, and ushers – after giving a series of Disability Awareness Training workshop/talks. There was a palpable interest in making the museum as accessible and welcoming as possible, and it was a real privilege to premiere the production there.
Volunteers setting out the accessible signage
And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues is an international dialogue between Singapore and the UK about difference, diversity, and what it is to be human. Inspired by interviews my colleague Peter Sau and his team held in Singapore, and my own conversations over many years with Deaf and disabled individuals in the UK, the fictional monologues were commissioned by Unlimited, with support from Arts Council Wales and the British Council.
Warming up: And Suddenly I Disappear cast, Gallery Theatre, National Museums Singapore
The production previewed last week, with an audience of students from a series of schools and colleges, who astonished and delighted us with their focus and engagement. We couldn’t have asked for a better first audience – so enthusiastic and curious about the work we presented. I’ve also never been in a situation before, where I had a selfie with a large proportion of the audience.
Part of the preview schools audience for ‘And Suddenly Disappear…’
A real opportunity for discussion and change feels possible at present in Singapore. Diversity and inclusivity are vogue terms here, just as they seem to be everywhere at present, but I’ve experienced less lip service and more action here than in Europe. I am encouraged – there does seem to be a palpable desire for change, and so in interviews, public talks and workshops, I’ve been banging on about the necessity of diversity in our cultural leadership. My concern is that whilst embracing notions of inclusivity and diversity, the same-old, same-old hierarchies will endure, and so a remarkable opportunity to re-examine and reinvent societal structures will be lost.
Our brilliant associate producer Natalie Lim with signage for the production
There is also a misunderstanding about the difference between arts and disability – where the non-disabled provide arts provision for ‘the disabled’ as part of their socialisation or therapy – and disability arts, where disabled artists lead, direct, create and control the product. Disability arts and culture sometimes – but not always – reflects lived experience, and can be a manifestation of identity politics informed by the social model of disability – which sees it is society and its attitudinal or physical barriers which is disabling, not the idiosyncracies of our bodies.
Company members Peter, Steph, Shirley, Ramesh and Grace backstage
My fictional monologues seek to reflect a wide spectrum of experiences, embracing all the possibilities of human variety and challenging notions of normalcy. Love, relationships, extortion, and ‘cures’ are explored amongst other themes. Although many expect me to write ‘disabled themes’ (whatever the hell they would be…), it’s the same material as usual – whatever captures my imagination and makes me want to explore dynamics and situations theatrically – what’s different is the world view and the theatrical languages at play.
I’m wary of ‘telling true stories’, as it is often phrased, when people assume that the story belongs to the actor performing it, or it is the true experience of one individual. As a playwright, I’m interested in finding the narratives and form that makes the story larger than itself – speaking for a community of people, perhaps, rather than one (perhaps unfortunate) individual.
Interview in Singapore Straits Times
The work has now been realised and shared with the Singaporean audiences, premiering last weekend, 25th May. I will share responses and reactions as they emerge in a future blog, and also cover the live-streamed performance, another innovation in the presentation and touring of the work. At present I am dealing with jet lag and adjusting to the Welsh pastoral outside my window, and preparing the publicity alongside new monologues for the next stage of this project: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues, premiering at Southbank Centre 5-6 September, as part of Unlimited Festival.
Meanwhile – here’s the Singapore poster by our designer Ho Su Yuen….. unusually featuring the director and writer, alongside the cast.
And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues by Kaite O’Reilly, directed by Phillip Zarrilli and produced in Singapore by Access Path Productions, is an Unlimited International Commission, supported by Arts Council Wales and British Council. The performances in Singapore were possible thanks also to Singapore International Foundation, Singapore Press Holdings Foundation Arts Fund, NSM, and Kuo Pao Kun Foundation.
Mid April already, richard iii redux completed for the time being after a terrific Wales-wide tour – and now far-flung travel beckons. I leave next week for Hong Kong, where I will be leading a six day workshop on inclusivity and forms of storytelling for ADAHK
I was last in Hong Kong in 2016 with my performance text about Frida Kahlo, the 9 fridas, directed by Phillip Zarrilli and produced for the Black Box International Festival at Hong Kong Repertory Theatre, in association with Mobius Strip, from Taiwan. It will be fascinating to spend more time in Hong Kong working with local theatre practitioners, learning about their approaches to inclusive practice. I’m hoping to have an opportunity to see new work as well as explore the art centres and galleries of Kowloon, where I will be based.
From Hong Kong I will fly directly to Singapore, to begin rehearsals on my Unlimited International Commission And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore ‘d’ Monologues. We have just released tickets for the World premiere of this dialogue about difference, disability and diversity from opposite sides of the world, premiering on 25 May 2018 at National Museum of Singapore Bit.ly/and suddenlyidisappear
The production will tour to the UK in September, and I will give further details of the venues in England and Wales, plus special guests, closer to the time. My thanks, as ever, goes to our funders and supporters: Unlimited, Arts Council Wales, and the British Council, who alongside Singapore International Foundation and Centre 42 will make this innovative intercultural project possible. Meanwhile, here’s the glorious video featuring Sophie Stone, Ramesh Meyyappan, Sara Beer, Peter Sau, Grace Khoo and Lee Lee Lim, made by James Khoo with director Phillip Zarrilli:
I was wonderfully surprised earlier this week to get an email from Chwarae Teg, informing me I had been shortlisted for their Womenspire 2018 Awards. Chwarae Teg is a charity working to redress the gender balance in the workplace in Wales, with a vision to create: “A Wales where women achieve and prosper.” I didn’t know I had been nominated for the Culture award, so to discover I’ve made the shortlist of four has been an incredible pleasure and privilege, making this quite a week. I’ll be celebrating the talent, passion, and vivacity of women in Wales at Womenspire 2018 at the Wales Millennium Centre on 5th June.
It’s a real privilege and pleasure to be one of the playwrights included in this recent anthology from Bloomsbury, Fifty Playwrights on their Craft. I was one of the twenty-five UK-based writers interviewed by Caroline Jester last year, whilst Caridad Svich interviewed a further twenty-five across the pond in the US.
I’ve only recently received my copy, and as I’m on tour with richard iii redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] Richard III, (first five star review here), I have yet to take the required time to settle down, dip and savour. There’s a terrific breadth of voices and experiences included here, and much to learn from the vast array of contributors.
Bloomsbury describes the book as follows:
In a series of interviews with fifty playwrights from the US and UK, this book offers a fascinating study of the voices, thoughts, and opinions of today’s most important dramatists.
Filled with probing questions, Fifty Playwrights on their Craft explores ideas such as how does playwriting help a global dialogue; where do dramatists find the ideas that become the stories and narratives within their plays; how can the stage inform the writer’s creative process; how does crossing boundaries between art forms push the living art form of theatre-making forward; and will there be playwrights in another 50 years? Through these interrogating interviews we come to understand how and why playwrights write what they do and gain insight into their processes and motivations. Together, the interviews provide an inter-generational dialogue between dramatists whose work spans over six decades.
Featuring interviews with playwrights such as Edward Bond, Katori Hall, Chris Goode, David Greig, Willy Russell, David Henry Hwang, Alecky Blythe, Anne Washburn and Simon Stephens, Jester and Svich offer an unprecedented view into the multiple perspectives and approaches of key playwrights on both sides of the Atlantic.
Table of contents
Chapter One: Writing that spans nations
Chapter Two: Stories and Narratives
Chapter Three: Structure and Stages
Chapter Four: Writing Across Artforms
Chapter Five: Role and Responsibility
Further information about the book can be found here.
I find the process of making, and the process of teaching, discussing, and sharing endlessly fascinating.I am without doubt a dramaturg geek, and I’m sure this book will provide many happy hours comparing and contrasting perspectives, opinions, and practice.
I’m looking forward to my annual masterclass intensive at Ty Newydd writers centre, in the beautiful surroundings of Lloyd George’s old home,overlooking the sea in north Wales. Masterclass in Writing for Live Performance, 11 -16 June 2018. It’s a very special time, when eight writers and I make a small creative community, starting new work or developing work-in-progress, with dramaturgical support from me in class and one-to-one tutorials, and practical workshops to stimulate new writing, teach and clarify technique, and basically move along the scripts – whether emerging or being polished – to the next level. It’s a time for writers to develop the idea niggling at the back of their brain, or to try out early drafts, or be supported in completing and polishing a piece of performance writing. There’s skills-based exercises, timed writing exercises to create and develop new material, practical script-workshopping, discussion, laughter, beautiful walks, views, and amazing food from Tony… (Imagine completing a really satisfying three hour session to the growing aroma of cakes baking in the oven, to be gobbled down when still warm with a well-deserved cup of tea on the break… Yes, this actually happens…. no wonder I love going to this remarkable place so much… and Tony also shares his recipes – including a vegan banana cake! – here )
I love doing this work, and the participants seem to enjoy it, too, as we get many returning for guidance and support on their latest work – whether that’s a script, monologue, performance poetry, or something in-betwwen. We still have places for this Summer, so if anyone is interested, please contact Ty Newydd and see further information here
Meanwhile…. it’s back to the theatre and the third night of richard iii redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] Richard III. We’re on tour until March 23rd, tour dates and venues, below.
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.
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