The row over Richard III rumbles on. Disability groups have objected to the Globe’s forthcoming production in which Michelle Terry will take the lead. The able-bodied Terry, who happens to be the Globe’s artistic director, has apologised ‘for the pain or harm that has been caused by the decision for me to play Richard III.’
This carefully worded statement gives the impression that some external authority reached ‘the decision’ to award her the role but was that really the case? Casting decisions at the Globe, she goes on, are made ‘rigorously’ and ‘always in dialogue with members of our many communities.’ One of the ‘communities’ she seems to have ignored is the fellowship of white male actors for whom the bulk of Shakespeare’s parts were written. But their absence is so routine that no one even notices these days.
The Disability Actors Alliance published an open letter complaining about the ‘inauthentic casting’ of Terry but they failed to mention that Richard is a man and Terry is a woman. Never mind. The letter states that Richard ‘experiences and documents the socialised effect of an attitudinally disabling society.’ In English, that seems to mean that a performer with a disability can understand Richard more easily than an able-bodied rival. Good point. And it’s self-evidently true. A black actor is better placed than a white actor to grasp Othello’s predicament, and a thesp whose dad is a billionaire can embrace Hamlet’s psyche more readily than a boy from a council estate.
And yet the argument is already starting to fall apart. The council estate actor may be more imaginative, charismatic, talented and handsome than his wealthy rival. And a casting director has to look at factors beyond the mere biography (or ‘lived experience’) of a candidate.