As part of Hull’s UK City of Culture celebrations, Northern Broadsides have cast Mat Fraser in the role of Shakespeare’s infamous disabled anti-hero, Richard III. Review by Sophie Partridge
Barry Rutter’s casting of veteran disabled performer Mat Fraser (even as a Southerner playing a Northerner!) as the ultimate bitter Crip character of Richard, Duke of Gloucester lends an authenticity to the role not usually known.
This production of Richard III is thankfully unencumbered by digital projections and gadgetry and staged with a mix of what could be termed more inclusive-type casting. It was great to see that Mat was not the token Crip, cast along-side another disabled actor Dean Watton, as both murderer and boy Prince.
This Richard has no illusions as to who or what he is. Cast in the role of villain by playwright and society at large, his opening lines announce his intention to play exactly that, without self-pity or deception. As a soldier with an unimposing physicality, Richard’s armour is of a different guise; one of charm and wit, something many of us with impairments can relate to.
As the action begins I’m reminded ‘it’s Shakespeare’ and I need to concentrate! Somehow the Northern tones of the speech make the text less intimidating, more friendly. Being at the front and on the level of the stage, I was drawn into the tale as the number of coloured scarves hung on the back of the set, alongside the school boy caps worn by the princes and all who’s lives Richard takes, steadily increases throughout the play.
The exchange between Richard and Lady Anne is vociferous – how many insults can she hurl and how many can he simply rebuff with wit?! It feels like a case of “methinks she doth protest too much” when she eventually agrees to marry the man responsible for her husbands’ death. This scene seems to touch upon something darker, deeper; the nature of attraction itself. It almost felt as if Shakespeare’s back-story was that although the Lady’s former husband Prince Edward, may have been a very fine bloke, he wasn’t half as fanciable as the Duke!
This is where things really take off with Fraser in the role; it is not `despite’ his ‘withered arm’ that he is able to seduce, it is somehow because of it. The so-called deformed Richard is everything a King should not be. And yet a King he will be and a man he is. And his subjects, his people know that deep down. And they don’t like it.
Writhing on the floor after a night of torment, he literally struggles to reach the crown, something another man or king would simply put out his hand to do. We witness his passion (be that love or hate), strength of will and intent.
This is what enables and empowers him and culminates in the final battle, when the back of the stage opens as the cast enters for war and the drumming begins. Richard’s true self finally comes to the fore. Has he in fact conned us all (and perhaps himself) when he emerges as noble and heroic? The salacious humour has gone as he prepares to fight until the bitter end.
In a recent interview, Mat Fraser said he had started to feel like yesterdays’ Crip. All I can say is Long Live Richard and carry on!