History has been made, somewhat belatedly, at the RSC, with the opening of a Richard III on the Stratford main-stage that sees a rising, youngish contender, 30-year-old Arthur Hughes, brave the title role.
Survey the company’s many productions of the play since its earliest days in 1961 and you’ll behold a procession of outstanding stage actors in the lead – most sensationally the late Antony Sher, back in 1984. None of them, though, could have claimed to bring to the part an ingrained grasp of Richard’s most notorious feature: his disability. Ten years ago this August, what turned out to be the king’s body was uncovered in a Leicester car-park; the skeleton confirmed his scoliosis.
Hughes isn’t a “direct” match, as it were, for Shakespeare’s slur of “crookback”. He was born with radial dysplasia, meaning he’s “limb-different”, in his right arm. He may not be hunched, but a societal and psychological understanding of Shakespeare’s villain is plainly born of that difference. Gregory Doran, who was Sher’s partner and stepped down as the RSC’s artistic director ahead of this production, has said that “having an actor with a lived experience of disability means every moment… is reassessed.”
The charge you could level against even the finest able-bodied actors is that showmanship becomes their modus operandi, obscuring the deep scars that propel the tragic action. Shakespeare is clear about that impulse in the opening soliloquy. Regardless of the “peace” dividend from Henry VI’s murder, to the victor there are no sexual spoils. Not “shaped for sportive tricks”, Richard is a proto-incel bent on mischief.
We begin with solitude amid a carnival: the masked and conga-ing court shifts into freeze-frame as Hughes picks his way through the revellers. He cradles an abandoned white balloon – white being the victorious Yorkists’ colour – rubbing it so it squeaks as he speaks, then popping it. His emerging revelation is that mental agility can make your enemies embrace the thing they loathe. He registers almost boyish disbelief after managing to woo Lady Anne (Rosie Sheehy), widow of the slain heir to Henry’s lost throne: she spits in his face, then shudders in remorse, and softens.
That’s enough to morph Richard’s self-hatred into self-love. He out-stretches his arms in a parody of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, and the shadow of that posture rises up the cenotaph that dominates a stark set that’s sometimes engulfed in darkness and sometimes flooded with vermilion light. The image intimates a looming nightmare, which comes to fruition when Richard ascends the throne, and comes apart in a phantasmagorical tableau, the ghosts of the many slain forming the horse on which he rides, and from which he falls.
Such visual coups are rationed in a production which, with its period-faithful clobber and chorister interludes, makes the action lucid and intelligible, almost to a dutiful degree. I could have done with more of the lines that have needlessly fallen by the wayside – “Go tread the path that thou shalt ne’er return,” for example – and Hughes’s Richard is more impish than devilish, but he neatly combines comic heartlessness with pathos. Wounds ache beneath the breast: he soaks up the bile poured on him by his mother, the Duchess of York (Claire Benedict), his anguish palpable.
Given Hughes’s relative inexperience in Shakespeare, it’s a triumph. But while the evening wins the case for him – and, by extension, other disabled performers – to take on the role as their birthright, it doesn’t quite overthrow the ongoing claim of their best able-bodied counterparts. Lived experience is a route in, but so are imagination, empathy and craft. The mighty legacy of Sher and others won’t so easily be consigned to the past.
Until October 8. Tickets: 01789 331111; rsc.org.uk