There has been a spate of high profile all-female productions of Shakespeare the past few years – Maxine Peake playing Hamlet in Manchester and Phillyda Lloyd’s trilogy of Julius Caesar, Henry IV and last year’s The Tempest, to name just a few. As a woman working in theatre, I applaud any attempt to provide more visible platforms for women practitioners, and believe there is still much to be mined from the classics with cross-gender casting (and I mean male actors playing female roles here, too…). Yet in the midst of all this welcome talk about diversity and parity, I believe there is still one area hugely overlooked – and that is atypical embodiment.
I have spent half a lifetime and most of my career collaborating with and writing specifically for what I call atypical actors in my atypical plays. I’ve often spoken about how I appear to have two careers – one in the so-called ‘mainstream’, writing new versions of classics like Aeschylus’s Persians for National Theatre Wales – and another within disability arts and culture, which has been invisible and seemingly of no interest to the media until recent years. For the past half decade I’ve tried to marry my ‘crip’ culture work to my ‘mainstream’ profile and argued for inclusive casts and the aesthetics of access as a matter of course rather than something ‘special’ to gain brownie points for the venues involved. For me this is my ‘normality’ and it is gratifying to perceive the debates opening up about power, diversity, and the make-up of our theatres and moving image industry – but discussions about disability still lags behind.
From 2011 I was a fellow at the International Research Centre Interweaving Performance Cultures attached to Freie Universitat in Berlin.It was my great fortune to have the time and encouragement to reflect on my work between disability culture and the so-called ‘mainstream’ and to write a series of published essays about my work.
During my residencies in Berlin, I became fixated on how live theatre – my medium – has demonised, dehumanised, or deified physical, sensory and neurological difference. I began paying closer attention to how fellow dramatists portrayed in particular atypical embodiment, the poster boy being of course that personification of evil, Richard III. And so the seeds for the project richard iii redux OR Sara Beer Is/Not Richard III came into being.
Out of fear of misrepresenting the production Sara Beer, Phillip Zarrilli, Paul Whittaker and I are in the process of making, I will stress our project is neither high-brow, academic, nor tub-thumping. In order to explore the themes of disability, representation, and the possible ‘hatchet job’ committed by the Tudors on what seems to be historically a fair and popular King, we need to travel light, fast, and with humour. I am not a fan of dour, PC, or dreary productions and prefer – rather like our poster image – to stick two fingers up at being ‘worthy’. What we hope to do is shake things up a bit, to play with the playing of that ‘bottled spider’ Richard III, to explore elements of the historical Richard with the Shakespearian representation, and deconstruct how this villain has been portrayed in the past.
The production will be a mix of live and pre-recorded video captured on location across Wales and at Bosworth battlefield itself. Much of the film footage is done, and Paul is currently working on our trailer, which I can’t wait to share, probably in my next blog post..In effect, we want to make a production which is subversive and entertaining, prompting laughs along with the odd moment’s reflection. It’s a challenging mix, but also one that makes me giddy, especially after this weekend’s work, filming (often with great fun and hilarity) in Cardigan and Ceredigion. Sara Beer is a phenomenally versatile performer, who switches from serious to high camp comedy on a sixpence. Her presence certainly enlivened our soggy day’s filming, following Henry Tudor’s trail en route to the Battle of Bosworth, where Richard III was slaughtered, so paving the way for the Tudors and the current House of Windsor.