German director Thomas Ostermeier is acclaimed for his shaken-up productions of classic plays, from Hamlet to A Doll’s House. His production of Richard III, originally staged at Berlin’s Schaubühne and recently brought to Brooklyn’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of their 2017 Next Wave Festival, is an “updated” twist on a classic Shakespeare play.
His Richard III features the titular character delivering snarling soliloquies into a hanging microphone, then aggressively swinging it around. Played with a grotesquely enticing charisma by Lars Eidinger, this Richard clambers into the audience and chastises latecomers, rapping into the mic rather than sticking to iambic pentameter.
The design, too, received an update. The set’s floor is mostly hard-to-trudge-through sand, confetti cannons explode extravagantly, and a live band plays loud noise-jazz between scenes. The production is performed in German, with corresponding English supertitles. The cast has been thinned out, and the children in the play are replaced with elaborate porcelain doll-like puppets.
But in adding significant amounts of dazzling, edgy spectacle to the mix, this Richard III proved that it’s simultaneously very modern and rather stuck in the past. Exciting and intriguing as these updated elements are, one thing remains the same: Richard III walked with a limp and a humped back. This type of physicality has been seen time and time again in productions of this play, almost always embodied by able-bodied actors, and this time was no different.
Clearly, the traditional rules of realism and period dramas are far from sight here. So why did Ostermeier’s imaginative retelling end with casting? Though it exists in a sea of subversion, Ostermeier’s casting of Eidinger only served to reinforce this age-old misstep, as it was one of the only components of the play not turned on its head.
Not a single review I read, out of many critics in many countries, mentioned that this was an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, particularly in a way that directly mimicked a disabled body moving through space. Instead, they remarked on Eidinger’s vicious charisma, the bloodshed, the confetti cannons, the live music. Their issue was with Ostermeier’s hump choice. The New York Times called it “obviously artificial”; the Financial Times deemed it “visibly fake.” The hump, a cushion on a black chest harness, was visible when Richard disrobed. If this was the cinema, it would indeed look fake. But this is the theatre, where a bit of blue fabric can serve as the ocean without question. If the hump looks fake, why don’t the porcelain doll children? Why are critics suspicious of how an able-bodied actor is performing disability, rather than the fact that he is performing it at all?
Ostermeier is very much aware of the fact that Richard is disabled; speaking to The Guardian in 2016 he disagreed with directors who did not give Richard a hump. “For Richard, his disability is part of his suffering, his destiny and why he feels excluded from society. It’s why he has to try to be stronger, faster, and smarter than the rest,” he said. “This hierarchy excludes him from power … A lot of his motives are linked to his physical deformation.” If a visible physical disability is so crucial to Ostermeier’s vision of the play, it’s unclear why he did not find a performer who already has one. While casting authentically can be more difficult, it can be done, and the lack of acknowledging the issue suggests it was likely never on his radar at all.
The director also notes the purported falseness of the hump. “You can clearly see, in the scene where he undresses, that a hump is part of his costume. We wanted to tell the audience that this is a theatre performance,” he told The Guardian. This may be German theatre, but surely there are ways to achieve a Brechtian distancing effect that don’t involve perpetuating a casting convention many people with disabilities are actively rallying against.
This Richard III casting choice feels particularly questionable now, when discourse on the topic has become quite loud. The practice of able-bodied actors playing disabled roles has earned these actors many an accolade, and just as much condemnation by disabled activists and allies; it’s even been deemed “cripface” by some. In 2016, Variety reported on a study that found 95 percent of disabled roles on the top ten TV shows are not played by actors with disabilities; American Theatre noted in 2015 “the past two seasons on Broadway showcased seven productions featuring disabled characters; none of them were played by actors with disabilities.”
Not only has criticism of the entertainment industry’s flawed representation of people with disabilities become more visible—a few creators are actually putting in the work to be better. Broadway has made baby steps, from Deaf West’s acclaimed production of Spring Awakening to Sam Gold’s recent revival of The Glass Menagerie, which featured Madison Ferris, an actress with muscular dystrophy, in the role of Laura. Network TV has as well, with shows like ABC’s Speechless, about (and starring) a young man with cerebral palsy.
Even the original Richard III has seen an actor with a disability cast at least twice: in 2016, when Chicago’s The Gift Theatre staged it at Steppenwolf, and when Mat Fraser (of American Horror Story: Freak Show) played the role in the UK last year. Both were generally well-received; a review of The Gift’s production said watching actor Michael Patrick Thornton play the role while using a wheelchair, walker, and high-tech assistive device made “all memories of other Richards with their limps, humped backs, and crippled arms fade from memory.”
Inclusion can extend beyond a one-time casting; some plays like Andrew Hinderaker’s Colossal stipulate “an artist with a disability” must be cast in the role of a quadriplegic. Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, a "re-imagination of Richard III set in high school," specifies the casting of one actor with cerebral palsy and one wheelchair user. It was commissioned by NYC-based theatre company The Apothetae, which is “dedicated to the production of works that explore and illuminate the ‘Disabled Experience.’”
Research on Richard III shows conflicting theories on the corrupt protagonist’s body. A popular literary tactic at the time was to manifest a character’s nature literally on their physical form, and it’s argued Richard being “deformed” in the play is a symbol of his unsavory character rather than an accurate recreation of the historical figure, leaving the staging open for interpretation. Considering this context, the absence of a disabled person in a narrative that uses disability as a symbol for evil feels especially questionable. But there are ways to utilize this history; in an interview with the BBC, Mat Fraser said it was “freeing” to play a cruel character, and it absolved him of his “responsibility as a disabled person to imbue this disabled character with as much sensitive understanding as possible.”
The actual Richard III’s skeleton was discovered to have severe scoliosis of the spine, rather than the humped, limping figure with a gnarled arm commonly depicted. In fact, an analysis of his skeleton showed the real Richard would not have even limped. With this easily-accessible historical information at hand, a director wanting to cast an able-bodied actor in the titular role could do so without asking the actor to “play disabled.” Surely there are other ways to embody the role of a man deemed “monstrous” that don’t involve a fake limp.
While it seems new plays have most commonly succeeded in casting actors with disabilities in disabled roles, it’s important to hold the classics to the same level of accountability. Breaking with hundreds of years of tradition may seem daunting until you recount how frequently directors have done it with every other aspect of Shakespeare.
“I am still the ‘weird’ Richard III, drama’s most famous disabled character, precisely because I’m a disabled actor,” Fraser wrote in an op-ed. Perhaps one day the “weird” Richard will be the actor pretending to limp, and critics will remark upon the nature of the casting choice rather than the prop hump’s aesthetic. You can shoot off all the confetti cannons in the world, but until your production makes an effort to welcome the bodies it is portraying, its subversion will end up as empty spectacle.