Who can play Richard III? Representation questions fuel casting debates

Danai Gurira as Richard in “Richard III,” at the Delacorte Theate in New York on June 23, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - When three of the most prestigious Shakespeare companies in the world staged Richard III this summer, each took a different approach to casting its scheming title character in ways that illuminate the fraught debate over which actors should play which roles.

At the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, Richard was played by actor Arthur Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, which means he has a shorter right arm and a missing thumb.

The company said it was the first time it had cast a disabled actor to play the character, who describes himself in the opening scene as "deformed". The production's director, Gregory Doran, who was until recently the Royal Shakespeare's artistic director, told The Times of London earlier this year that having actors pretend to be disabled to play Richard III would "probably not be acceptable" these days.

The Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, took a different tack: It cast Colm Feore, who is not disabled, to play a Richard who has a deformed spine but who is not a hunchback.

And in New York City, the Public Theater's Free Shakespeare in the Park went in yet another direction, casting Danai Gurira, a black woman who does not have a disability, as the duke who schemes and kills his way to the throne of England.

Their varying approaches came at a moment when an intense rethinking of the cultural norms around identity, representation, diversity, opportunity, imagination and artistic licence have led to impassioned debates, and battles, over casting.

It has been decades since major theatres have had white actors play Othello in blackface, and, after years of criticism, performances by white actors playing caricatured Asian roles are growing rarer in theatre and film, and are being rethought in opera and ballet.

Now there are questions about who should play gay characters (Tom Hanks recently told The New York Times Magazine that today he would, rightly, not be cast as a gay attorney dying of Aids, as he was in his Academy Award-winning role in the 1993 film Philadelphia) or transgender characters (Eddie Redmayne said last year that it had been a "mistake" to play a trans character in 2015's The Danish Girl) or characters of different ethnicities and religions. (Bradley Cooper faced criticism this year for using a prosthetic nose to play Jewish conductor Leonard Bernstein in a forthcoming biopic.)

While many celebrate the move away from old, sometimes stereotyped portrayals and the new opportunities belatedly being given to actors from a diverse array of backgrounds, others worry that the current insistence on literalism and authenticity can be too constraining. Acting, after all, is the art of pretending to be someone you are not.

"The essential nature of art is freedom," said Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, whose many credits include Shylock, the Jewish moneylender of Shakespeare's The Merchant Of Venice, though Abraham is not Jewish. "Once we impose any kind of control over it, it's no longer free."

And while the recent insistence on more authentic casting promises greater diversity in some respects, it threatens less in others - coming as many women and actors of colour are getting more opportunities to play some of the greatest, meatiest roles in the repertory, regardless of whatever race or gender or background the playwrights may have initially envisioned.

Sometimes such casting is considered "colourblind", in which case audiences are asked to look beyond an actor's race or ethnicity, or other features. But in recent years the trend has been towards "colour-conscious" casting, in which an actor's race, ethnicity or identity becomes part of the production and a feature of the character being portrayed.

The remark by Doran, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company production, that it would "probably not be acceptable" these days to have actors pretend to be disabled to play Richard caused a stir in theatre circles.

Not only is Doran a renowned Shakespearean, but his husband, Antony Sher, who died last year, was one of the most memorable Richards of recent decades, using crutches in an acclaimed 1984 production and writing a book about his portrayal.

Doran, whose production in Stratford-upon-Avon was critically lauded, later clarified his thinking about its casting, explaining that while any actor might be a successful Richard, he believed the role should be reserved for disabled actors until they "have the opportunities across the board now more widely afforded to other actors".

In New York, Gurira, who has appeared in Black Panther (2018) and the television series The Walking Dead (2010 to present), tried to explore the underlying reasons for Richard's behaviour.

"There is a psychological reason for what he becomes," she said in an interview. "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."

Danai Gurira (left) as Richard and Daniel J. Watts as a henchman in “Richard III,” at the Delacorte Theate in New York. PHOTO: NYTIMES

The production's director, Robert O'Hara, said that they made Richard's difference key to the interpretation. "Richard's otherness becomes an entire reason for his behaviour," he said in an interview. "He feels like now he has to play a part people projected onto him."

The rest of the cast for the production, which ended its run in July, was notably diverse and included several actors with disabilities in roles that are not usually cast that way.

Ali Stroker, a Tony-winning actress who uses a wheelchair, played Lady Anne. Monique Holt, who is deaf, played Richard's mother, the two typically communicating on stage via American Sign Language.

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?'"

Professor Ayanna Thompson, who specialises in English at Arizona State University and is a Shakespeare scholar in residence at the Public Theater who consulted on its Richard III, argued that the growing embrace of colour-conscious casting reflected contemporary understanding of how different attributes inflect both actors' identities and audiences' perceptions.

"All of our bodies carry meaning on stage, whether or not we want to acknowledge that. And that's going to affect storytelling," she said.

She pointed to an example from another play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet's, whom other characters often confuse for each other.

"If Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by black actors, and the Hamlet family are all white," she said, "the inability to distinguish carries a whole set of different meanings."

Some disabled actors are upset when they see Richard III, one of the juiciest disabled characters in the canon, go to someone else.

"We all want a level playing field where everybody can play everybody," said Mat Fraser, an English actor who is disabled and has played Richard, "but my entire career, I've not been allowed to play hardly anybody."

Some hold out hope for a day when identity will recede in the conversation.

"A hundred years from now, do I hope white actors could play Othello?" said Oskar Eustis, the Public Theater's artistic director. "Sure, because it would mean racism wasn't the explosive issue it is now."

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