Tag Archives: Phillyda lloyd

Exeunt Magazine: On the poster boy of embodied difference, Richard III

richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III

Exeunt magazine feature:

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.

Richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III tours Wales in March, playing Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, Aberystwyth Art Centre Studio [SOLD OUT}  Theatr Clwyd, Mold, The Torch Theatre, Milford Haven and Small World Theatre, Cardigan

With thanks to Exeunt magazine.

So let’s talk about representation of bodies (1)… richard iii redux

Sara at Cilgerran Castle, Ceredigion. richard iii redux. Photo: Kaite O’Reilly

There has been a spate of high profile all-female productions of Shakespeare the past few years – Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in Manchester and Phillyda Lloyd’s trilogy of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and last year’s The Tempest, to name just a few. As a woman working in theatre, I applaud any attempt to provide more visible platforms for women practitioners, and believe there is still much to be mined from the classics with cross-gender casting (and I mean male actors playing female roles here, too…). Yet in the midst of all this welcome talk about diversity and parity, I believe there is still one area hugely overlooked – and that is atypical embodiment.

I have spent half a lifetime and most of my career collaborating with and writing specifically for what I call atypical actors in my atypical plays. I’ve often spoken about how I appear to have two careers – one in the so-called ‘mainstream’, writing new versions of classics like Aeschylus’s Persians for National Theatre Wales – and another within disability arts and culture, which has been invisible and seemingly of no interest to the media until recent years. For the past half decade I’ve tried to marry my ‘crip’ culture work to my ‘mainstream’ profile and argued for inclusive casts and the aesthetics of access as a matter of course rather than something ‘special’ to gain brownie points for the venues involved. For me this is my ‘normality’ and it is gratifying to perceive the debates opening up about power, diversity, and the make-up of our theatres and moving image industry – but discussions about disability still lags behind.

Sara digging up her Richard – richard iii redux.

From 2011 I was a fellow at the International Research Centre Interweaving Performance Cultures attached to Freie Universitat in Berlin.It was my great fortune to have the time and encouragement to reflect on my work between disability culture and the so-called ‘mainstream’ and to write a series of published essays about my work.

During my residencies in Berlin, I became fixated on how live theatre – my medium – has demonised, dehumanised, or deified physical, sensory and neurological difference. I began paying closer attention to how fellow dramatists portrayed in particular atypical embodiment, the poster boy being of course that personification of evil, Richard III. And so the seeds for the project richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III came into being.

Sara Beer and director Phillip Zarrilli digging up their Richard III in Llandysul

Out of fear of misrepresenting the production Sara Beer, Phillip Zarrilli, Paul Whittaker and I are in the process of making, I will stress our project is neither high-brow, academic, nor tub-thumping. In order to explore the themes of disability, representation, and the possible ‘hatchet job’ committed by the Tudors on what seems to be historically a fair and popular King, we need to travel light,  fast, and with humour. I am not a fan of dour, PC, or dreary productions and prefer – rather like our poster image – to stick two fingers up at being ‘worthy’. What we hope to do is shake things up a bit, to play with the playing of that ‘bottled spider’ Richard III, to explore elements of the historical Richard with the Shakespearian representation, and deconstruct how this villain has been portrayed in the past.

Videographer Paul Whittaker and director Phillip Zarrilli check the footage. Cilgerran Castle.

.In effect, we want to make a production which is subversive and entertaining, prompting laughs along with the odd moment’s reflection. It’s a challenging mix, but also one that makes me giddy, especially after this weekend’s work, filming (often with great fun and hilarity) in Cardigan and Ceredigion. Sara Beer is a phenomenally versatile performer, who switches from serious to high camp comedy on a sixpence. Her presence certainly enlivened our soggy day’s filming, following Henry Tudor’s trail en route to the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III was slaughtered, so paving the way for the Tudors and the current House of Windsor.

The production will be a mix of live and pre-recorded video captured on location across Wales and at Bosworth battlefield itself. Much of the film footage is done, and Paul is currently working on our trailer, which I can’t wait to share, probably in my next blog post.