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Casting choices in Shakespeare’s Richard III highlight debates over representation in theater

By: Vivian She

This summer, three different Shakespeare companies took vastly varying approaches to casting the disabled main character of Richard III in light of recent debates about representation and casting.

The Royal Shakespeare Company in England cast Arthur Hughes, a disabled actor who has radial dysplasia, as Richard III. According to the company, this was the first time it had cast a disabled actor to play the character. Gregory Doran, the production’s director, told the Times of London that “having actors pretend to be disabled to play Richard III would probably not be acceptable these days.”

The Stratford Festival in Canada took a different approach when it cast Colm Feore, who is not disabled, to portray Richard as someone with a deformed spine but not a hunchback. This portrayal of Richard was based on the discovery of Richard’s bones, which showed that he had a form of scoliosis. Ann Swerdfager, the company’s spokesperson, said in an email that his physique was “was less of a medical disability than a social and cultural one.” Critics wonder if Feore will be the last able-bodied actor who is able to play a disabled character on the Stratford stage, since many in the industry are coming to emphasize authenticity and similarity in identity between the actor and character when casting roles.

The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City took yet another approach when it cast Danai Gurira, who is a black woman without disabilities, to play Richard. The rest of the production’s cast is also very diverse. They included Ali Stroker, a Tony-winning actress who uses a wheelchair and played Lady Anne, and Monique Holt, who is deaf and played Richard’s mother.

“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?’” said the production’s director, Robert O’Hara.

These casting differences highlight controversial debates surrounding representation in theater. Many are focusing on authenticity and literalism when choosing actors. For example, such directors believe a disabled character should be played by a disabled actor. Similarly, a trans character should be played by a trans actor, not a cisgender one.

However, others worry that the insistence upon authenticity and literalism may restrain actors too much. They say that the essence of acting is pretending to be someone that you are not.

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