Director Phillip Zarrilli reflects on the questions and perspectives that prompted him to join playwright Kaite O’Reilly and actress Sara Beer in developing, researching, and creating their forthcoming performance: richard III redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] richard III.
I am looking at an empty and seemingly lifeless suit of armour laid out on the Battlefield at Bosworth near Leicester where each August there is a re-enactment of the battle that ended the War of the Roses and brought Henry Tudor to power.
about Shakespeare’s Richard III and his creation of Richard
as a Machiavellian ‘villain’;
about the historical Richard (Duke of Gloucester) who became King
and how the historical Richard does or does not ‘fit’ with
about who would have worn that suit of armour on the battlefield
and fought as bravely to the end of his life as the historical
about the distorted contortions and various ways of ‘cripping up’
used by contemporary actors to play Richard III—
whether Antony Sher (RSC), Kevin Spacey (Old Vic), or Lars Eidinger
(Ostermeier’s Schaübuhne production, Berlin/Barbican)—and whether
any of them would ‘fit’ battle-ready into this specific suit of armour;
about which specific actor might best wear that armour, in some way
“play Richard,” and respond to both Shakespeare’s Richard and the
about the Welsh connection to Richard, and his successor—Henry
Tudor—who was born at Pembroke Castle in Wales;
and, about the role that “Tudor propaganda”—what today might be called
“fake news”—played in the creation of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Those were the main questions that prompted playwright/dramaturg Kaite O’Reilly, Cardiff-based actor Sara Beer, and I to begin researching and developing this one-woman performance of richard III redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] richard III.
As England’s “national bard”, and as a master playwright who crafted a remarkable set of plays whose language, cadences, and compellingly dramatic stories continue to engage and have relevance for audiences throughout the world, is it in “bad taste” to really QUESTION Shakespeare’s choices about how he constructed and represented any of his characters? Hamlet, Cordelia, Lady Macbeth, Richard III—aren’t they all simply “roles” to be played by actors for theatrical entertainment? After all, isn’t it a playwright’s job to “play” with and perhaps reinvent history to one’s own dramatic ends?
Who are WE THREE, after all, to QUESTION Shakespeare?
Given our specific questions, we decided we did not want to simply “do” a conventional production of Shakespeare’s Richard III with Sara Beer—who happens to be disabled and originally from St Davids–playing Richard. Rather we wanted to challenge ourselves to create a “root and branch” questioning of and response to Shakespeare’s version of Richard as “twisted”—literally and figuratively. We wanted to completely “re-mix” (redux) Shakespeare’s Richard by asking:
RICHARD III: Bogeyman. Villain. Evil incarnate.
Or is he?
What if he is she?
What if the ‘hideous…deformed, hobbling, hunchbacked
cripple’ is portrayed by someone
with the same form of scoliosis?
So rather than a straightforward performance of Shakespeare’s Richard III, we have reimagined Shakespeare and re-mixed Richard III with elements and insights from the historical Richard, and the numerous Welsh connections that are an essential part of the (usually untold/unexplored) story of Richard and his defeat by Henry Tudor. During the process of development over the past three months whether in the studio, on the pages of new text that we’ve shuffled and reshuffled, and on the “hoof” videotaping at various locations in Cardiff and West Wales, we have been exploring how the story changes, the character changes, the body changes, the acting changes when all the figures appearing in the performance are played by a disabled actor—Sara Beer—someone who possess a sense of deadly comic timing, and, for good measure “a dislike of horses”.
In addition to challenging Shakespeare’s version of Richard from the unique perspective of a disabled actress, we also wanted to raise issues about the “art”, “craft”, as well as training of contemporary actors. We especially wanted to question how actors like Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, or Daniel Day Lewis, are trained to “disappear” into a character role and “become” that character. In Kate Kellaway’s 21 January 2018 article in The Observer, she notes how “Day Lewis famously spent the entire shoot of Oscar-winning My Left Foot (1989) in a wheelchair to get into character as cerebral palsy-sufferer Christy Brown”. Consider the question: Why are non-disabled actors still playing the roles of disabled characters on stage and in films in 2018? And another question: can a (visibly) disabled actor’s body ever “disappear” into a role? Or is that body always “on view”?
As important as re-mixing Shakespeare’s Richard has been placing Sara Beer—the actor and disability activist–directly at centre stage. Playwright Kaite O’Reilly has a long history of collaboration and collusion with Sara Beer from their first meeting in the disabled people’s movement, to their early days working with Graeae Theatre (London) in the late 1980’s; the staged reading of O’Reilly’s peeling in Cardiff in 2008; Sara’s participation as an actor in the 2010 rehearsed reading of O’Reilly’s The D/’d’ Monologues [National Theatre Studio (London)]; Sara playing Maureen in the world premiere of O’Reilly’s Cosy at Wales Millennium Centre (2016); and Sara’s key role in the core acting ensemble in O’Reilly’s recent Unlimited International commission, And Suddenly I Disappear: The Singapore/UK ‘d’ Monologues [May, 2018 Singapore; September, 2018 UK performances at Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival, Chapter Arts Centre and touring].
Yes, richard III redux is specifically written for, and constructed around Sara Beer. And yes, it is intentionally a vehicle to put HER centre-stage where she belongs. As she takes on the multiple personas we have created for her in richard III redux, Sara will mix and re-mix her comic abilities with much subtler dimensions of her abilities as an actress.
Working between live performance, on-camera performance, and pre-recorded videos, richard III redux questions, re-imagines, and remixes ‘richard’ as each of Sara Beer’s multiple personas ‘looks’ for richard–in the historical past, in Shakespeare’s text, in the performance of other actors, outside ‘the actor’s studio’, and across the length and breadth of Wales.
See Sara Beer at:
Chapter Arts Centre (Cardiff) 8, 9, 10, 16, 17 (8pm) and 17th (3pm)
Aberystwyth Arts Centre Studio 14, 15 March (7:45pm)
Theatr Clwyd (Mold): 19, 20 March (7:45pm)
The Torch Theatre (Milford Haven): 21 March (7:30pm)
Small World Theatre (Cardigan): 23 March (8pm)
The development, performances, and Welsh tour of richard III redux OR Sara Beer [is/not] richard III are supported by a grant from Arts Council Wales and assistance from Chapter Arts Centre.