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Shakespeare & Beyond

“Cast in darkness": Who should play Richard III?

Shakespeare’s Globe in London made headlines recently after announcing that, for their summer 2024 production of Richard III, artistic director Michelle Terry cast herself in the title role. Terry is an exceptional non-disabled actor who’s successfully played many of Shakespeare’s greatest roles, but her decision has sparked criticism from numerous corners, including the Disabled Artists Alliance, which called “for an immediate recast of Richard” under the hashtag banner #NothingAboutUsWithoutUs. The alchemy of casting is always complicated, and for those who argue we should just “let actors act,” I would respond that it’s even more important to let the right actors act. Terry’s choice casts an unfortunate shadow over her production which, by hiring a disabled actor as Richard III instead — a practice not only right but long overdue — could shine new light on the greatest disabled role in the theatrical canon.

Take Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s current production of Richard III, for instance, in which Katy Sullivan — a bilateral above-the-knee amputee who’s a four-time U.S. champion in the 100 meters, a Paralympian athlete, and a Tony-nominated actor — brings both easy authority and wicked glee to the arrogant Richard. Even though her own body is the kind Richard dismisses as “not shaped for sportive tricks” and “deformed, unfinished,” Sullivan challenges our preconceptions of what such a body is capable of by transforming it as the play progresses. She begins on the floor, without prosthetics, moving about the stage with quick agility before transitioning to a wheelchair which, even long before being crowned king, she inhabits like a rolling throne. Sullivan then dons a pair of wooden legs that make her as tall as the other actors but less nimble in how she moves around the stage, until she attaches the prosthetic running blades she wore in the Paralympics for Richard’s climactic battle at Bosworth Field.

a woman dramatically gesturing onstage, kneeling with a wheelchair behind her, in a scene from Richard III

Katy Sullivan plays the title role in Richard III, directed by Edward Hall in his first production as Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director. In the Courtyard Theater, February 2–March 3, 2024. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Watching Sullivan bring her physical authenticity to the role — and it probably bears repeating that Shakespeare’s Richard III is a highly theatrical and fictional version of the historical Richard — allows the audience to not be distracted by an able-bodied actor mimicking a disability, a practice known as “cripping up.” Sullivan’s command of both the stage and text also allows the production to explore the entirety of Shakespeare’s play. Director Edward Hall and designer Michael Pavelka take their cues from their leading actor and create a morgue-like environment where bodies are taken apart and reassembled. In a program note, Pavelka describes the ensemble of “masked, white-coated but grubby Victorian hospital orderlies” as “protagonists-in-waiting: half in, half outside of the story…more comfortable in Bedlam than onstage.” Richard feels himself to be less than human, and the masked ensemble amplifies this idea, occupying an uncanny valley of faceless storytellers who, like Richard, feel “scarce half made-up.” That horror movie creepiness is dialed up when the doomed young princes are played by puppets whose decapitated heads end up displayed in a specimen jar, and continues when Richmond — the future Henry VII who, as we’ve discussed, had an even greater real-life motivation than Richard to kill the princes in the tower — assumes the throne at the end of the play. Hall’s production makes it clear that under this new monarch the savagery will continue.

A scene from Richard III that includes white-masked characters onstage and two puppets

King Edward IV (Demetrios Troy, at center), with his family—the Princes (puppeteered by Mark Bedard and Mo Shipley), Queen Elizabeth (Jessica Dean Turner), Lord Rivers (Sean Fortunato), and Clarence (Scott Aiello) —in Richard III, directed by Edward Hall in his first production as Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Artistic Director. In the Courtyard Theater, February 2–March 3, 2024. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Casting a disabled actor as Richard III is not a radical new idea. In 2016, Michael Patrick Thornton played Richard in a Gift Theatre production at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. The now Tony-nominated Thornton uses a wheelchair after two spinal strokes left him partially paralyzed, and he spoke last fall on the Folger’s Shakespeare Unlimited podcast about how reciting Shakespeare helped him learn to breathe and speak again as part of his recovery. But his love of Shakespeare combined with a different impulse when playing Shakespeare’s villainous king. “Disability gets consigned to the inspirational triumph story where a saint-like patient quietly bears the load and teaches us all how to appreciate what we have,” Thornton said in an interview. “That is not Richard III.”

a man onstage in a wheelchair with a walker next to him

Michael Patrick Thornton as Richard III in Richard III, The Gift Theatre. Photo: Claire Demos.

Working with director Jessica Thebus, Thornton delivered a stunning coup de theatre just before intermission when he, as Richard, rose out of his wheelchair and walked again, courtesy of both a state-of-the-art exoskeleton called a Rewalk and the help of physicians and therapists from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (you can see video here). Thebus explained that she and Thornton treated the exoskeleton as an extension of the crown, the thing Richard thinks will make him feel finished and complete, when in fact, Thornton’s Richard is freer and more powerful without it and neither the English throne nor a “normal” body will assuage his ambition and bitter self-loathing.

Working with Thornton in the title role allowed Thebus to emphasize Richard’s struggle with his conscience and conceive the play as taking place on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth Field, right before Richard is visited by the ghosts of his victims. When Richard intoned his first word “Now…,” he rewound to scenes from the second and third parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI plays, reviewing in his own mind how events had arrived at this point and allowing the audience to understand with unusual clarity who all the characters were. It also allowed Thornton to introduce his fellow actors who — like the ensemble surrounding Sullivan in the Chicago Shakespeare production — were costumed as aspects of Richard, here to help him tell his story. By the time Richard returned to the rest of his famous opening speech (“…is the winter of our discontent”), the audience had a much clearer picture of who and what he was talking about.

As of now, Shakespeare’s Globe insists that while they are “committed to developing a culture of care, empathy, equity, conversation, and accessibility across all our work,” Terry will play Richard III as previously announced but “not alter [her] physicality” or play him “with a visible or physical impairment.” According to Howard Sherman, a columnist for UK’s The Stage and longtime advocate for disabled casting, Terry’s position is a kind of double erasure that both “denies the role to disabled actors and denies the disability” of the character.

Rather than reducing Shakespeare’s play to being “only” about the character’s disability, casting disabled actors as Richard allows productions and audiences to engage with the play on far deeper levels. And far from being “disabled,” both Thornton’s and Sullivan’s performances reveal just how powerfully able they are.