The ‘Most Real Richard III There’s Ever Been’

The Royal Shakespeare Company has cast a disabled actor to play the “deformed, unfinish’d” king for the first time. The choice has been hailed as a landmark moment.

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England — A raucous party was underway in one of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s rehearsal rooms this month as the cast of “Richard III” ran through the play’s opening, dancing in a conga line while music blared and balloons bounced off the floor.

Off to one side, the future Richard III sneered at the scene. Shakespeare depicted the king as a scheming hunchback who murdered his way to the British throne, and in this imagining of the play, he is personified by the 30-year-old actor Arthur Hughes. In role, Hughes stepped into the middle of the party, veering through the revelers to deliver the play’s famed opening speech: “Now is the winter of our discontent,” he began.

As the speech continues, Richard lists the insults he has faced. He is “curtail’d of this fair proportion”; he is “cheated of feature”; he is “deformed, unfinish’d.” As Hughes declaimed each barb, he angrily squeezed a white balloon. Eventually the pressure became too much. The balloon popped.

The moment of tension was made even more powerful by Hughes’s own appearance. He has radial dysplasia, meaning he was born with a shorter right arm, his wrist bending into the body and his hand missing a thumb.

The first casting by the Royal Shakespeare Company of a disabled actor to play Richard III has been hailed as an advance in British theater. The play opened in Stratford-upon-Avon on Thursday and runs through Oct. 8.

Ellie Kurttz, via Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare used and amplified Richard III’s real-life condition — the king is thought to have had scoliosis or curvature of the spine — to highlight the character’s unsavory nature. (He is described at one point as a “pois’nous bunch-back’d toad.”) According to Gregory Doran, the director of the current adaptation, the casting of Hughes in the role “sends out a big message, just as not casting a disabled actor would have sent out a different message.”

Hughes’s casting comes as the frequency of disabled actors earning major roles appears to be growing in British theater. In July, the National Theater will present “All of Us” by Francesca Martinez, an actor and playwright who has cerebral palsy (Martinez said in a telephone interview that the play would feature three disabled actors, including herself). And Liz Carr, who uses a wheelchair, this year won an Olivier Award, Britain’s equivalent of a Tony, for her performance in Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart” at the National.

In her Olivier acceptance speech, Carr highlighted some persistent problems. “There’s so many fears of risk of employing disabled actors,” she said, but added the award “proves we can do it, we can project, we can fill a stage.”

Jack Thorne, the playwright behind “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and an activist for disabled people, said in a telephone interview that there was “definitely a willingness” to expand disabled casting in Britain. The National Theater was a leader, he said, as were six regional theaters behind an initiative called Ramps on the Moon that stages productions led by deaf and disabled actors.

Yet there was still a dearth of lead roles in London’s commercial heartland, he said. “There aren’t West End shows with disabled leads,” he added. In discussions about diversity, the issue was routinely forgotten, he said. Theaters should bring in targets to increase participation, he said.

The National Theater, for instance, has experimented with aspirational quotas for women and people of color, but not for disabled people. Alastair Coomer, the theater’s head of casting, said in a telephone interview that new targets were being discussed and that he “would not be surprised” if that discrepancy was addressed.

Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

Hughes, eating potato chips in a break from rehearsal, said he hoped his casting as Richard III “sets the mold for how the industry can change.”

Growing up in Aylesbury, a town about 40 miles northwest of London, Hughes said that he had experienced few barriers to pursuing acting. As a child, he said, he was so enthusiastic in drama classes that he was given prime roles, such as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Hughes said that he had read “Richard III” for the first time while looking for speeches to use when auditioning for drama schools. He instantly identified with the role, he added, since the play’s characters view the future king as “not cut out for big parts” because of his looks. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’s me,’” Hughes said.

After drama school, Hughes did not immediately secure an agent — unlike many of his colleagues. “Voices in my head were going, ‘Are you a risk?’” he said, but those doubts lifted after he secured a role in a production by Graeae, a British theater company that casts deaf and disabled actors. Before then, Hughes said, he felt his appearance “was going to hold me back,” but after being surrounded by other disabled actors, he felt empowered. He even started wearing short sleeves to highlight his limb difference, he added.

The Royal Shakespeare Company show is Hughes’s most high-profile casting to date. In May, Doran gave an interview to The Times of London that was headlined: “Able-Bodied Actors Cannot Be Richard III.” In a letter of complaint to that newspaper, Doran said that the headline was misleading. His point, he wrote, was that, although anybody could play the role, a disabled actor could “enhance the performance and impact of the production.”

Richard III is often portrayed as an almost comedic bad guy, Hughes said, often with a fake “hump and limp.” While not trying to hide the character’s villainy, he hoped to draw attention to his motivations: “You can see a despot and tyrant,” he said, “but also a little boy who hasn’t been loved and someone who’s shunned and outcast and is underestimated.”

Mat Fraser, another disabled actor, who played Richard III in a production in Hull in northern England in 2017, said that the king was often played by older performers who could make the king seem a “withered little twig.” But Hughes is young and muscular — better suited to portraying a monarch who died at age 32 on a battlefield, Fraser said. “We’re going to see the most real Richard III there’s ever been,” he added.

Hughes said he was already looking beyond his turn as Richard to other Shakespeare roles, and would love to play Hamlet, and Iago from “Othello.”

“I’d like to play a role that’s not specified as disabled,” he said. “Obviously, whichever role I play will be disabled by the very nature of me playing it,” he added. “But that’s not the point.”

Richard III
Through Oct. 8 at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England; rsc.org.uk.

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