After far too many gloomy articles about the predicament of theatres today, this was going to be the week when we celebrated some of the joys of theatregoing. Sadly, another controversy has hit the headlines so seekers after good news will have to wait a little longer.
Given the nature of the controversial subject matter, before even starting to write this column, we should like to emphasise that some of the views have been collected from interested parties and do not necessarily reflect those of either the writer or British Theatre Guide.
Why the disclaimer? Because the subject of casting has become too hot to handle, especially when it relates to those from groups regarded as at a disadvantage, whether they be women for whom there were disproportionately few major roles in the past, those from what were known as BAME backgrounds or actors with disabilities.
The media has greedily gobbled up the opportunity to attack the Artistic Director at Shakespeare’s Globe, Michelle Terry, for her decision to take the on leading role in Richard III this season. This brilliant actress has already played Hamlet and Henry V so is firmly established as an expert in playing heavyweight leads in Shakespeare.
However, for some, Richard III is a step too far. The Disabled Artists Alliance, which boasts 167 disabled and ally theatre professionals and 19 creative organisations, has issued an angry statement on X denouncing what it regards as an unacceptable decision at a time when Arthur Hughes has recently shown that a disabled actor can be an acclaimed player of the King.
The Alliance acknowledges that, “there’s been incredible progress made across all facets and roots of the industry regarding disabled inclusion, including the casting of disabled actors across disabled and traditionally non-disabled roles. But this role belongs to us.”
It concludes, “we are therefore calling for an immediate recast of Richard, to accurately reflect the truth of the script and his disabled identity, within the programming of the summer season.”
Ms Terry has obviously been shaken by the attack but, like the character whom she plans to portray, intends to carry on regardless.
Over the years, there have been debates about accent-blind casting, colour-blind casting, gender-blind casting and, more recently, ableism-blind casting. Much of this has had positive consequences, allowing performers to have a far greater opportunity to shine in roles from which they might in the past have been excluded.
It is now commonplace to see black actors playing leading roles in Shakespeare, while superb female performers such as Ms Terry have become de rigueur to the point where Hamlet has become a gender-free part.
From one perspective, since Richard III was indisputably a man, there could be a stronger argument than her being non-disabled against casting Michelle Terry. If one follows the Alliance principle, it could also be posited that with true literalism the only actor permitted to play Richard is someone who suffers from scoliosis.
That, in itself, might be subject to debate, since the belated diagnosis results from the unearthing of a skeleton beneath a Leicester car park, which has been identified as the late King, although the proposed proof can hardly be definitive over half a millennium after his demise.
There is also a question as to whether it would be better to find someone as close as possible to the King himself or instead to the stage version invented by William Shakespeare as a “poisonous, bunch-back’d toad” and “bottled spider”.
Some have said that, following the logic to its extreme, casting would be very simple, since the choice of actors available to play any historical role would be limited to virtual clones of the original, which would be extremely restrictive. There would be no more women playing Henry V or Hamlet and those from an Asian background might find themselves effectively excluded.
Artistic decisions should also be significant. One has to wonder whether it is more valid to cast an actor whose performance may be inferior but who has close physical attributes to a person rather than the one who better conveys the rounded character, which is generally what theatregoers have come to see.
Finally, numbers could come into the mix. If one assumes that no more than half of Alliance followers are actors and many of those would immediately accept that they are not suited to the role of Richard III, the choice for any future director will be severely limited. Indeed, outside London and major conurbations there may be no actors that the Alliance would accept.
Some may choose to boycott this Globe production by way of protest and in doing so almost certainly miss out on a superlative performance from the leading actor. In any event, such an extreme reaction is unlikely to help anybody.
A far better approach might be for The Disabled Artists Alliance to enter into discussions and negotiations with producers and directors with a view to agreeing a code that will optimise its members’ opportunities to get work across the widest possible range of roles, while attempting to ensure that the quality of the theatre on show is always a primary consideration.