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3 Performances, 3 Actors, all Featuring King Richard the Third

By: Eric Wang

Fans of Shakespeare’s play Richard III are surely delighted to learn that the Royal Shakespeare Company of Stratford-upon-avon, England, the Stratford Festival of Ontario, and the Public Theater in New York, three highly acclaimed Shakespeare companies, are all performing Richard III this summer. But a look at who plays the leading role reveals some stark differences.

For the Royal Shakespeare Company, Arthur Huges, who was born with radial dysplasia in his right arm. This is the first time the Royal Shakespeare Company has cast someone with a disability to play the disabled Richard III.

Richard III is described as “an ugly hunchback, ‘rudely stamp'd’, ‘deformed, unfinish'd.’” An examination of his bones found that he indeed had severe scoliosis, which explains his hunchbackness.

Production director Gregory Doran told the Time of London that having people pretend they were disabled while playing Richard III would “probably not be acceptable.”

On the other hand, the Stratford Festival has cast Colm Feore to play a Richard III that isn’t disabled but has a deformed spine. Taking a different turn, the New York Public Theater has cast Danai Gurira, a black woman.

The varying casting of the iconic character comes at a time when we have challenged the old norms around identity. Blackface, once an accepted tradition of theater, has now become extremely offensive, and yellowface, the Asian version of blackface, has started to be considered offensive as well.

While many celebrate and welcome the move away from the old caricatures and portrayals, some worry that this may be too constraining for actors. Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham says, “The essential nature of art is freedom. Once we impose any kind of control over it, it’s no longer free.”

While the varied casting of Richard III shows this may improve diversity in some cases, it will likely have the opposite effect in other roles.

Mr. Dorian’s remark on how actors shouldn’t pretend they are disabled caused quite a stir in the acting community, as there have been many amazing Richard IIIs that weren’t actually disabled. He later clarified that he believes the role should be reserved for disabled actors until they “have the opportunities across the board now more widely afforded to other actors.”

The castings of Mr. Feore and Ms. Gurira seem to have underlying meanings as well.

Spokeswoman for the Stratford Festival Ann Swerdfager says the depiction of Richard III in their production was backed up by the discovery of his bones in 2013 that suggested the real king had scoliosis. Their casting rested upon the idea that Richard III’s physique “was less of a medical disability than a social and cultural one.”

In New York, Ms. Gurira seeks to explore the underlying reasons for Richard’s treacherous and murderous ascent. “There is a psychological reason for what he becomes. He’s looking at the rules in front of him, and he feels he’s most capable, but the rules disallow him from manifesting his full capability,” she said in an interview.

The rest of the cast in the Public Theater’s performance included several roles being performed by actors with disabilities that they usually wouldn’t be cast as. Production director Robert O’Hara said, “I wanted to open up the conversation from ‘Why isn’t Richard being played by a disabled actor?’ to ‘Why isn’t every role considered able to be played by a disabled actor?’”

Though they are all playing the same character, these three actors all have their own take on the iconic tyrant, and this opens up a new world of diverse and “colorblind” casting. Perhaps we shall soon see the casting of a black woman as a white man as something ordinary.

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