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‘A landmark moment’: Arthur Hughes on being the first disabled actor to play Richard III at the RSC

Arthur Hughes is the first disabled actor to play Richard III at the RSC. As he prepares for opening night, Hughes explains why this matters.

Fresh from his title role in Jack Thorne’s critically-acclaimed drama Then Barbara Met Alan for the BBC, actor Arthur Hughes discusses fulfilling his life-long dream of taking on Shakespeare’s most unscrupulous king, his debut season with the company and the significance of the RSC casting a disabled actor in the role of Richard III for the very first time.

It’s a real experience being in the driving seat as one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters, and real bucket list territory for an actor to be driving him around the racecourse that is the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

This production will be the first in the RSC’s history to feature a disabled actor in the title role of Richard III. Arguably, as one of the English-speaking worlds’ most famous disabled characters, this feels long overdue. Richard has been a character I’ve wanted to play for ages, and I’m sure many other disabled actors feel a similar connection to him.

Richard is a disabled man in an ableist world

Arthur Hughes

Being underestimated, overlooked, shunned and forgotten about, this is what disabled people experience daily in an ableist society and have experienced since Shakespeare’s time and before. The significance then, of having this character represented by a disabled body on stage cannot be underestimated.

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It makes a marked difference in having Richard played by a disabled person and part of the reason why I see this as a landmark moment for reclaiming Richard III as a leading part for disabled actors to inhabit. Historic portrayals that feature prosthetics, limps, humps, bumps and straps tacked onto a non-disabled person, I believe, do a disservice to the depth of Richard as a character…and what a character! Playing Richard as a disabled actor, the audience can see the difference instantly and the language only serves to heighten that. You’re not seeing an impression or an artifice. The work is already done.

The play’s about the notion of conscience, and what happens when we choose to ignore it. Good and bad, the moral code, and the hierarchy of society are things that we are all bound by. But if this hierarchy shuns you, degrades you and builds barriers that shut you out, isn’t it natural that you would choose not to abide by its principles?

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Richard is a disabled man in an ableist world. As a consequence, he decides to forget the societal structure of conscience by which others are governed in order to ruthlessly accelerate his way to higher positions.

Whenever we look at any tyrannical despot or leader, we have only to look into their past and often we will find experiences of trauma or hardship. Richard is a man who was raised through the Wars of the Roses; a child of ugly bloody civil war, only valued for his ability to enact violence.

Arthur Hughes playing Richard, Duke of Gloucester in The Wars of the Roses in April 2022 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre – before playing him as the title role in Richard III this summer. Image: Ellie Kurttz / RSC

Through the blood and war of his boyhood emerges a man whose language is one of conflict and brutality, and who sees his place in the world as far down in the Medieval pecking order.

To play this part feels like a reclaiming of the disabled human in Richard, not the Machiavellian monster that surely does delight, but the exploration of his motives, his backstory, the man behind the ambition, has scope to go so much further with a disabled body.

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To see a disabled actor take up a title role at the Royal Shakespeare Company also feels like a significant step towards addressing the massive underrepresentation of disabled actors on stage and screen more generally. It’s not the first time, of course, that disabled actors have played Richard III.

There have been others before me; like the brilliant Mat Fraser and Daniel Monks. Nor is it the first time that the RSC has worked with disabled actors.

But for a company like the RSC to put disabled talent centre stage in this way feels like a significant shift in attitude. Ultimately, it would be fantastic to see more disabled actors cast in non-disabled parts, where their disability is incidental, and it’s exciting to think about what might come next…a disabled actor cast as Macbeth, Hamlet or Othello, Juliet, Viola or Desdemona?

It’s alarmingly relevant – the idea that those who naturally gravitate to positions of power almost always end up being the most unsuited to it

Arthur Hughes

That’s when we’ll know that we’re at a point of real change. It’s about bringing both worlds together – about making room to tell disabled stories but, equally, about integration, where ‘being in the same space’ tells a story in itself. There’s a whole wealth of disabled talent out there that can bring new depths and new ways of looking at these age-old characters that you might never have even considered.

Beyond this, Richard III has so much to tell us about the world we live in today.

It’s alarmingly relevant – the idea that those who naturally gravitate to positions of power almost always end up being the most unsuited to it. That’s a pattern we see repeated again and again, all over the world. Just look at what’s happening in the world today …Just like Richard, these unscrupulous characters always seem to frighten and fascinate in equal measure.

All this aside, one of the other things that really gets me going about Richard is just how much fun he is. He’s a part made for an audience. You love him, you fear him, you fancy him, you are shocked by him, you’re compromised by him, you’re complicit in his acts to some extent and, eventually, you pity him.

His journey is extraordinary, and it’s disabled…and it’s human.

Richard III runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon from Thursday 23 June – Saturday 8 October

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