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Pressure mounts on Globe to recast Terry’s Richard III

GEORGIA LUCKHURST

Shakespeare’s Globe is under mounting pressure to recast its summer production of Richard III starring artistic director Michelle Terry, as the newly formed Disabled Artists Alliance warns that pushing ahead as planned will empower others to “erase disabled identity from historical work”.

It comes after the collective, which was formed as a direct response to Terry’s casting and comprises 167 “disabled and ally” theatre professionals and 19 creative organisations, released an open letter calling for an immediate recast, saying: “There is no suitable solution in which a non-disabled person steers the narrative [of Richard III].”

Controversy has engulfed the production, to be directed by Elle While and running from May 9 to August 3, since being announced last month, prompting two statements from the theatre.

In the first, Terry said she believed the Shakespearean canon was based on a “foundation of anti-literalism”. In the second, she revealed she would not play the “iconic disabled figure” of Richard III “with a visible or physical impairment”, but admitted her casting might feel like a “missed opportunity for a disabled artist”.

The Shakespearean history play is based on the 15th-century king of England, who scientists confirmed in 2014 to have had scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, which is referred to throughout the play.

Terry acknowledged “any pain or harm” caused by the casting choice, and provided “some context” for that decision, including “asking whether this conflation of despotic evil with disability is useful”.

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She said removing that conflation left audiences “with a play about tyranny, abuse of power and toxic misogyny”, while stressing that it would not commit “a permanent revision of the play or the eternal erasure of the character’s impairment”.

However, in a statement to The Stage, the DAA said: “We’ve swung to the other extreme now – from disabled mimicry to complete erasure. Removing disability from Richard and the story comes at the cost of removing a multifaceted explanation of a character’s machinations.

“Other companies will see this as permission to erase disabled identity from historical work; rather than create accessible environments, employ disabled people and rectify ableist structures.”

Regarding Terry’s insistence that her interpretation will focus on other themes, the DAA said: “If you don’t want to authentically explore disability, there are many more suitable [Shakespearean works]. Disability is not a blank canvas in which to impress any socially pertinent commentary on to. Our stories are not to be sanitised to forefront certain themes and destroy others.”

The DAA said to explore such themes without a grounding in Richard’s identity represented a failure to “address the most pertinent theme – how ableist structures fail disabled people”.

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M A R K D O U E T

M A R K D O U E T

Meanwhile, Stephen Bailey, artistic director of disability-led theatre company Vital Xposure, told The Stage: “The Globe is putting forward contradictory statements. Their initial response said they believe the canon is based on the foundation of antiliteralism and therefore all artists should have the right to play all parts. [But] there are protected characteristics of other characters they wouldn’t impinge on. Richard should fall within that category.

“The new statement claims that a move away from disability in interpretation justifies its erasure. It then says: ‘The whole play is saturated with ableism that we will address.’ Well, which is it? How does a nondisabled team expect to ‘unpack’ ableism when it’s pointedly rejecting disabled input?”

Pioneering company Graeae also addressed Terry’s statement, calling the Globe’s actions “regressive”, while Hannah Tyrrell-Pinder from Box of Tricks said the company’s leadership team felt it right to raise their “voice in allyship with disabled theatremakers”. Robert Softley Gale, artistic director of disabled-led company Birds of Paradise, added that the Globe had “undone a lot of good work with one mistake”.

However, Michael Dobson, director of the Shakespeare Institute, agreed with Terry’s claims that the Shakespeare canon was based on a “foundation of anti-literalism”.

“One of the reasons we go on performing Shakespeare’s plays is that they are unresolved debates in which characters debate, collide and disagree,” he said.

He continued: “The view that disabled characters should only be played by disabled actors has only surfaced in recent times: it would have debarred [actors such as] Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh from ever attempting the role.”

The Globe has reiterated its intention to remain “in dialogue” with the industry and creative community, and to “continue this conversation online and in real life”.

Comment, Lyn Gardner, p7

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