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Arthur Hughes: First Disabled Richard III Is ‘Big Gesture’ From RSC

June 20, 2022

Sir Antony Sher, Robert Lindsay, Ian Richardson and Christopher Plummer are just a few of the consummate actors to have played one of the most prized roles in English drama, Shakespeare’s deliciously evil Richard III.

But although the Machiavellian anti-hero had scoliosis, a curved spine, none of the esteemed actors to have played Richard at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has had a physical impairment themself.

The days of “cripping up” – a term disabled actors regularly use to describe those with no physical impairment playing disabled characters – appear numbered now, though, with Arthur Hughes taking on the coveted role later this month.

He is not the first disabled actor to do so – Mat Fraser played Richard at Hull Truck, in 2017, and Daniel Monks took on the role in Dick at the Donmar, in 2019 – but it is a first for the RSC.

“We need to have more disabled Richards. This is a big gesture from the RSC… taking disability representation seriously,” Hughes says.

“Richard is one of the most famous disabled characters in the English language. I’ve always wanted to play him. I think a lot of disabled actors will think playing Richard is their birthright.

“Every time a disabled actor plays Richard, it’s an important step for representation.”

Hughes, who has radial dysplasia and identifies as “limb different”, clearly cannot wait to get his teeth into arguably his most challenging role to date.

Since leaving drama school, his experience of landing acting work has been largely positive, he tells BBC News, with roles in plays such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, at Sheffield’s The Crucible, and Saint Joan, at London’s Donmar Warehouse.

His TV credits include British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) award-winning Channel 4 drama Help and Netflix’s The Innocents.

Hughes is currently undergoing the ideal preparation for his upcoming role – playing a younger Richard in the RSC production of War of the Roses.

But the actor, from Buckinghamshire, was not always so confident.

While at drama school, in Wales, he noted “there wasn’t much of a precedent” in terms of disabled actors he could look up to.

“It was only after I graduated that I saw Ruth Madeley [who uses a wheelchair] in BBC One’s Years and Years,” he says. “Here was an actor with a disability and no-one’s referencing it. It’s not a part of the story. She is just there.”

Earlier this year, Hughes played a disability-rights campaigner in BBC Two’s Then Barbara Met Alan, opposite Madeley, who has spina bifida.

But while he feels a responsibility to play roles where disability takes centre stage, Hughes also wants to be seen in productions where the character just happens to have a physical impairment.

“I think it’s good to play those parts [where disability is a key part of the role] but it’s also good for disabled actors to play characters where it’s incidental and disability is not specified,” he says.

“That’s the next step, where representation will be really ubiquitous and powerful. Disability is obviously an important part of your identity, but not the only part.

“Why not have a disabled Macbeth?”

Othello syndrome

Like the RSC’s outgoing artistic director, Greg Doran, Hughes believes “disabled characters should be played by disabled actors”, with the days of those with no mobility impairment hunched over a cane to portray Richard presumably numbered.

“You don’t have white actors playing Othello anymore. Time has moved on,” he says.

Doran’s late husband, Sir Antony Sher, took the role of Richard at the RSC back in 1984 – but last month the director told the Times: “Tony’s performance now would probably not be acceptable.

“It’s the Othello syndrome isn’t it? That moment when white actors stopped thinking of Othello in their repertoire, because it was not acceptable to have blackface any more, at least until the level playing field is achieved.

“It’s the same with disabled actors and Richard.”

Actor Simon Callow, in a letter to the Times in response, disagreed over disabled casting, writing: “The theatre is a gymnasium of the imagination. Both actors and audiences stretch their imaginations there. Remove that element and you have a mere moving photograph”.

The debate rages on but while directors can choose to move with the times, Shakespeare’s script will always be stuck somewhere around 1592.

‘Drunk on power’

In the play, Richard calls himself “I that am rudely stamped… deformed, unfinished, sent before my time”.

How did Hughes handle the language?

“I’ve said openly in the rehearsal room that when we are talking, we have to make a real distinction with the language we use and the language that is used in the play – because it is horrible. We put a moratorium on the word ‘deformity’ unless it was in the text,” he says.

Matthew Duckett, who plays Catesby, one of Richard’s acolytes, is also disabled.

“We’ve got two disabled people in the room. We need to be open about this… and just make it safe, that we know the rules. But you need disabled voices in the room to do that,” Hughes says.

And having a physical impairment brings an understanding to the role an actor without one could never have.

“Not often, but people can judge me, or I will be stared at or underestimated… and maybe pigeonholed. It is ingrained in some people that there is a hierarchy and if you are disabled you are at the lower end of that hierarchy. All those things, Richard experiences,” Hughes says.

“To draw on that is a different thing to manufacturing it, to putting on a hump and a limp.

“It’s a disabled body on stage playing Richard. Immediately, the work is done. I understand what it is to be in this body.”

And Richard turns his physical impairment to his advantage.

“People can’t pin him down. Throughout the play, he deals in rumours, lies, gossip, duplicity, and to live as this weird changing shadow is useful to him,” Hughes says.

“He’s existing outside this society that doesn’t fully accept him. And that’s where I think he makes the decision, ‘If I’m not going to be accepted in society, I might as well play by my own rules. If these are the rules of this club, I don’t want to be in it.'”

At the same time, there are many other aspects of Richard’s personality and motivations Hughes is looking forward to showcasing.

“The main character may be disabled but one of the more tantalising things about the play is the rise of a tyrant, someone who wants power but is not fit for it,” he says.

“It’s about leaders who are frightening and paranoid and drunk on power and will do anything to… keep it. That’s the timeless thing about this play.”

Richard III will run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from Thursday 23 June to Saturday 8 October.

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