Non-disabled actor will not ‘alter physicality’ to play Richard III amid disability casting row

Non-disabled actor will not ‘alter physicality’ to play Richard III amid disability casting row

The artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe has confirmed she will play Richard III in a new summer production as originally planned amid a furious row over the casting decision.

While Olivier-winner Michelle Terry vowed not to “alter my physicality” for her depiction of the monarch, she added that the part would not be recast following backlash from disability advocacy groups in a statement on Wednesday (31 January).

The Globe was criticised after it announced Terry, a non-disabled actor, would play the role of Shakespeare’s “deformed, unfinish’d” king. More than 100 disabled performers argued that the part of the “most iconic disabled character” in literature should go to a disabled actor because “this part belongs to us”.

The Disabled Artists Alliance put forward their concerns in an open letter addressed to the British theatre, explaining its members were “outraged and disappointed” by the decision.

“It is offensive and distasteful for Richard to be portrayed by someone outside the community. It reduces disability down to a disguise and physical act, rather than a true grounded understanding of what disability means,” their letter read.

In response, the theatre released a statement on Wednesday confirming the play will run from 9 May to 3 August, as per their original plans, adding that they’d continue to “be in dialogue with our artistic communities” about the summer production.

Meanwhile, Terry, 45, apologised for “any pain or harm” caused by the casting in the theatre’s statement, while reiterating that all casting decisions are “made as consciously and rigorously” as possible.

Michelle Terry at The Oliver Awards (Getty Images)
Michelle Terry at The Oliver Awards (Getty Images)

“We have questions about the character of Richard. What is Shakespeare doing with the character of Richard and his self-titled ‘deformity’,” the statement read.

“We know that Shakespeare was writing in a particular time; leaning on, amplifying, and sometimes exaggerating the early modern belief that a ‘deformed’ body meant a ‘deformed’ soul.”

However, Terry confirmed that she would not portray Richard III’s disability with her body, while acknowledging the significance of the character as an “iconic disabled figure” for many people.

“I will not alter my physicality to explore it,” she wrote. “I will not be playing Richard with a visible or physical impairment, and we will frame this production in such a way as to make it very clear the lens through which this interpretation is being explored.

“This production does not equal a permanent revision of the play or the eternal erasure of the character’s impairment, or a rewriting of a historical figure. I acknowledge that for many, Richard III is an iconic disabled figure.

“I understand that this feels like a missed opportunity for a disabled artist to play a disabled character on a major UK stage, but it will come around again,” she continued. “We will continue to find as many ways as possible to diversify opportunity, to use the plays as a site for research, education, and discourse.”

Since being named the Globe’s artistic director in April 2018, Terry has played several famous Shakespearean characters, including Hamlet and Cordelia in King Lear.