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Mat Fraser: All theatres should cast at least one disabled actor a year

Mat Fraser in Northern Broadsides’ production of Richard III at Hull Truck Theatre with Dean Whatton, Jim English, Matthew Booth and Christine Cox. Photo: Nobby Clark
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For hundreds of years, white actors played Shakespeare’s famous black character Othello. Ira Aldridge was the first black actor to play him in 1833, and, more than 150 years later, the UK had its last blacked-up Othello. It had ‘officially’ become a role for black actors.

For the same hundreds of years, non-disabled, able-bodied (etc) actors have played Richard III. Now I am that ‘minority’ actor, playing him in Northern Broadsides’ 25th-anniversary production at Hull Truck Theatre as part of Hull’s City of Culture 2017. It’s timely, as mainstream UK theatre culture moves timidly forward to normalising disabled actors.

Last week’s publicity from the Arcola Theatre’s -forthcoming production of Richard III shows an actor with straps on his right arm, possibly a crutch. It honestly now feels backward to me, to have a non-disabled actor play this deliciously dastardly disabled role. My brain -reasons and understands, but inexplicably my insides feel -confused.

Is that unfair? I feel no negativity towards the actor, the production, or the portrayal, yet I am slightly disappointed by the Arcola’s choice. But then, I am the odd one out. I am still the “weird” Richard III, drama’s most famous disabled character, precisely because I’m a disabled actor. It’s 2017!

I’m just acting Shakespeare’s lines under Barrie Rutter’s direction, in my own deformed body, letting the incredible story and poetry do the work. I don’t know whether audiences feel my Richard is any more “real” than actors who add many cliches of impairment – sticks, straps, eye patches, humps, leg braces etc. Some of the reviews may offer opinions on that; maybe Shakespeare’s devilishly melodramatic writing of disability actually suits a similar performance and performer?

Wait, listen to me! How would that read if I were black and said maybe Othello’s writing suits a white actor blacking up?

When Paul Robeson played his Othello first in 1930, WA Darlington of the Telegraph wrote that Robeson was a “really memorable” Othello because he was black: “By reason of his race Mr Robeson is able to surmount the difficulties which English actors generally find in the part.”

Indeed Robeson is quoted as saying his playing the role was “killing two birds with one stone. I’m acting and I’m talking for the negroes in the way only Shakespeare can”.

Relatively, I’m just a bit-part actor schmuck who got lucky, and a six-fold murdering despot is perhaps not the most -typical portrayal of disability written in theatre. But, when I see disabled people in the audience, I know they have a thrilling, visceral and previously unexperienced connection to my Richard that goes deeper than any staged hump-back costume ever can.

Ruth Alexander-Rubin and Matt Fraser in rehearsals for Richard III. Photo: Nobby Clark

I also know how they largely feel when they see many of those add-ons, and the trope of quivering spasticity often used by actors when indulging it. This, plus the relative dearth of -disabled actors on stage reflecting the disabled audience members’ experiences, means an authentic actor’s portrayal can make them finally feel a part of the story. It’s almost revolutionary for some (and perhaps revolting for some non-disabled others?)

But, I’m actually far more concerned with the more inclusive future than bothering, again, with non-disabled portrayals of disability, as it’s surely the beginning of the end for that.

Please, can it be the end? It’s up to you, reader, not me. UK theatre’s relationship with disability is in dire need of improvement; I suspect strongly that often all you have to do is cast a real disabled actor in a role, and it can change that role from being at best tired, cliched, exclusive, and at worst ignorant and anachronistically offensive, to a recognisable, witty, clever, inclusive and wonderful real social historical comment. Check out the Ramps on the Moon initiative and its current production of The Who’s Tommy.

What a great opportunity for theatres to reimagine roles and increase their use of disabled actors. Tried and tested, commercially invested, able-bodied infested roles can be utterly refreshed, even revolutionised, while simultaneously filling in diversity boxes so often left barren except when Arts Council England is looking (thanks ACE, love your work).

So, for me, it’s a no-brainer, modern-day necessity to play this angle as one of many solutions to the lack of disabled actors, characters, and storylines. Ultimately, we need good, disabled playwrights to write real, disabled characters from a position of knowledge. They are out there – I have a list as long as my, um, leg? (well, 11 inches isn’t so long for an arm). Too many disabled writers are waiting for theatres to get back to them about their script that arrives pre-suspected, oft not elected, but hopefully once read and, if good, respected.

Every theatre should commission at least one disabled -playwright, and cast at least one disabled actor a year. It would be a cultural theatrical revolution. I believe that all arts funding should hold that as a condition.

As I’m at Hull Truck Theatre as part of its City of Culture 2017, it’s worth noting with comedic complication that the very first black Othello, Ira Aldridge, became a big star and went on to play Macbeth and Richard III in Hull in 1832, and “whited up”, using pale make-up and a wig. Huzzah!

As that sinks in, please don’t worry, I have no designs on Othello. I respect black actors too much, even if it were the norm to black up these days and no one really thought it was an issue.

Ideally, anybody should be able to play Any Body but only when there is a truly level playing field of opportunity.

I won’t apologise for my opinion on disability portrayal and representation, because the current field is as inaccessible as the Conservatives’ attitude to disabled claimants for vital social care, when it could be a Labour of love and equality.

It’s our life, it’s our theatre, and because indeed… “I have set my life upon a cast, and I will stand the hazard of the die!” #nothingaboutuswithoutus

Mat Fraser is currently appearing in the title role of Northern Broadsides’ production of Richard III at Hull Truck Theatre until May 27

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