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…..
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.
The Necessity of Diverse Voices in Theatre Regarding Disability and Difference. Excerpt from an essay for Howlround:
Theatre could be defined as the study of what it is to be human. For millennia we have come to sit communally—a group of human beings watching another group of human beings pretending to be other human beings. We are endlessly fascinated with each other, yet a place purported to be about the range of human possibility has for too long been circumscribed and limited, especially towards almost a fifth of the population. Statistics vary, depending on definitions of “disability,” but the World Health Organization estimates 15 percent of the world population as being disabled, whilst a 2012 US Census Bureau estimate brought the figure in at just over 19 percent of the American population.
For thousands of years in the Western theatrical tradition, the atypical body has been used to scare, warn, explain, and explore human frailty, mortality, and the human condition. Disability has been a metaphor for the non-disabled to explore their fears and embedded societal values.
Since the Ancient Greeks disabled characters have appeared in plays, but seldom have the writers been disabled or written from that embodied or political perspective. The vast majority of disabled characters in the Western canon are tropes, and not only that, they reify notions of “normalcy” rather than broadening the lens and embracing all the possibilities of human variety. These misrepresentations are so prevalent in Western culture that negative representations of impairment and associations have become ingrained. Strange untruths have therefore been created and recycled in our dramas for stage and screen, and the rich, rewarding reality of disabled peoples’ lives has been replaced with problematic representations which work to keep us different, “special,” and apart. This “othering” of difference (which also includes sexual preference, cultural heritage, belief system, and so on) provides a “useful” slide rule against which notions of “being normal” and “fitting in” can be measured. These distorted ideas enshrined in our entertainment media legitimize the negative attitudes that can lead to discrimination and hate crime.
Richard Rieser in his teaching guide to disability and moving image media, published by Disability Equality in Education, gives an example of how the limited narratives and visual lexicon impacts on people’s consciousness and actions. He focuses on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, noting how after its release in the UK the previously archaic term “hunchback” reentered common parlance as a derogatory term directed at disabled people. At the same time, The British Scoliosis Society complained to the then minister of Disabled People, Nicholas Scott, about a sudden increase in violent physical attacks against its members—over 100 attacks in the six months following the film’s release, when in the six months previous to this, there had been none.
Images and narratives in our entertainment media help form the mirror reflecting our society, through which, it could be argued, we gain a sense of community, morality, and self. Without a diversity of voices, perspectives, and experiences, prevailing negative attitudes and values remain entrenched and go unchallenged.
Thankfully change is coming, albeit slowly, with more disabled and d/Deaf artists coming to the fore across art forms. This is partly the fruit of the UK and US disability civil rights movements, out of which disability arts and culture grew, and the disability arts forums, organizations, and festivals that supported and still encourage this growth. In the UK it is also down to initiatives such as Unlimited, a funding strand keen to promote, commission, and implant the work of disabled and Deaf artists in the “mainstream” on a level never experienced before.
As a playwright and dramaturg who identifies as disabled, I have been working for several decades across and between so-called “mainstream” culture and what I coin “crip” culture, informed by the social model of disability. I consider disability a social construct—I am a woman with a sensory and physical impairment, but it is society’s attitudinal and physical barriers which is disabling, not the idiosyncrasies of my body.
In my work I am interested in creating new protagonists, with different narratives, and with different endings—and to challenge and expand the actual theatre languages at play in live performance through my engagement with the aesthetics of access. I believe reimagining disability opens up creative possibilities in aesthetics, form, and content—changing the stories we tell, how they are told, and the people who tell them.
To read the rest of the article, please go to Howlround
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