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RSC Casts Disabled Actor As Richard III

February 9, 2022

He is one of Shakespeare’s most reviled characters, distinguished by his “deformed, unfinish’d” figure. Now, for the first time, the Royal Shakespeare Company has cast a disabled actor in the title role of Richard III in a new production opening later this year.

For Arthur Hughes, it is a “dream come true” although his first reaction to being cast as the 15th-century king of England was disbelief. “It’s a part I’ve always wanted to play, it’s a very complex role, and it’s the biggest thing I’ve done,” said Hughes, 30.

Amid debate about whether actors need lived experience to give depth and authenticity to certain roles, Hughes said: “When Richard is played by actors who are able bodied, there’s an issue of how to portray the disability, how to wear this costume.

“With me, when I walk out on stage, it’s completely apparent that I have a disability. I can’t hide that. There’s a truth to it immediately, before I’ve even opened my mouth.”

Having able bodied actors play disabled characters was “problematic in many ways”. He added: “It’s not to say [able bodied] people can never play these parts. But I think it’s time that we had that lived experience shown properly.”

Hughes was born with a rare condition known as radial dysplasia, which affects one in 30,000 people. He has no thumb or radius bone in his right arm, and his right wrist is disfigured. He identifies as “limb different”.

Richard III, depicted by Shakespeare more than 100 years after his death as an ugly hunchback, in fact suffered from scoliosis or curvature of the spine. When the last Plantagenet king’s skeleton was discovered beneath a Leicester car park 10 years ago, his twisted vertebrae were unmistakable.

He came to the throne in 1483 after his nephews, the sons of King Edward IV, were consigned to the Tower of London. The children were later murdered, apparently on Richard’s orders. Richard reigned for just 26 months before being killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field during the Wars of the Roses.

Directed by Gregory Doran, Shakespeare’s eponymous play will open at the company’s theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in June. Before then, Hughes appears in a BBC drama, Then Barbara Met Alan, to be aired in the spring. It tells the story of two disabled cabaret performers who became the driving force behind the Direct Action Network, campaigning for disabled rights.

“They were very brave, real freedom fighters,” said Hughes, who plays Alan Holdsworth alongside Ruth Madeley as Barbara Lisicki. “They used to throw themselves in front of buses, chain themselves to Downing Street and organise these huge actions shutting down bridges to get themselves into the spotlight. It’s a love story set against a wider backdrop of a civil rights movement.”

The TV drama and the RSC production showed attitudes were changing, said Hughes, who has encountered certain “perceptions and underestimations” during his acting career.

“Lead parts for disabled actors is a real next step forward. Disabled actors that you see on TV and on stage are often in smaller, fringe parts. For true representation, we need to have leading disabled actors telling stories about disability and also not about disability.”

But the real breakthrough would come when disabled actors were cast in non-disabled parts, or in dramas where disability was not a central part of the story but was “just there” as part of a character’s life, he said.

The RSC has cast disabled actors before, including Charlotte Arrowsmith, who identifies as deaf and uses sign language, Karina Jones, who is visually impaired, and Amy Trigg, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair.

This year, the RSC is teaming up with TikTok to offer £10 tickets to all its productions to young people aged 14 to 25 with the aim of developing “a lasting commitment and love of theatre and live performance” and “diverse audiences of the future”.

Erica Whyman, acting artistic director of the RSC, said the company was committed “to partnership, to inclusion and justice”.

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