Preview: Richard III

Northern Broadsides started with a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III in 1992. Now King Richard will return to the stage with a disabled actor in the lead role.

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In September 2012, after more than five centuries of legend and debate, King Richard III’s skeleton was excavated from beneath a council-owned car park in Leicester. Tests revealed that the medieval king, who was portrayed by William Shakespeare as “cheated out of good looks by nature; deformed, not fully developed” in his 1595 play, did indeed have a form of spinal curvature, which would have made his right shoulder appear higher than his left.

In the Elizabethan period disability was often viewed as a sign of moral impairment, and for centuries defenders of Richard argued that Shakespeare’s physical representation of the “evil” and “monstrous” king was little more than propaganda to suit the agenda of Queen Elizabeth I.

Shakespeare’s play, which tells the story of villainous Richard’s pursuit for the crown, has been read, performed and recited for generations, and now theatre company Northern Broadsides is revisiting the tale – with a disabled actor at the forefront.

Mat Fraser, who has thalidomide-induced phocomelia, will play the tragic king at Hull Truck Theatre as part of this year’s UK City of Culture celebrations.

For Fraser, who has become one of the UK’s most famous disabled actors after starring in US series American Horror Story, Richard’s power of manipulation is one he can empathise with.

“Richard had an incredible power of manipulation, and his by-any-means-necessary approach to attaining the throne – that is something that all disabled people I know have skills around,” says Fraser. “We have to be able to think outside the boxes because we are never included inside the boxes, so if we want to get anywhere we often have to employ our own methods to get there, and that can involve, as you get older, having to be adaptive and strategise, and clearly that’s what Richard of Gloucester, as he is for the first half, does. Admittedly I don’t think most of us disabled people would kill seven people to get there, but hey, you never know!”

Unlike previous productions, which have seen actors put on prosthetic hunchbacks to portray the character’s disability, Fraser says he will not attempt to imitate Richard’s deformity.

“We are so used to him being such an evil bastard with the artifice of disability, so an audience will watch a non-disabled actor put on the tropes and clichés of the impairment and hobble about being evil, whereas I’m just going to play the evil from the inside, and what I’m interested in is will the audiences be any more sympathetic to my Richard than a pretend deformed Richard? I’m hoping not, because he was an out-and-out villain with no redeeming qualities.”

The production coincides with the 25th anniversary of Northern Broadsides, and the play itself holds sentimental value for the company, as it was the first show it performed in 1992.

“All the poetic gods were aligned because Northern Broadsides started in Hull, where I’m from, and we started with a performance of Richard III, and it’s our 25th anniversary that coincides with Hull 2017,” says founder and artistic director Barrie Rutter. “The sweet circularity of them coinciding is terrific.”

Richard III is at Hull Truck Theatre, 4-27 May, then the Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, 30 May-3 June

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