Mat Fraser is a disabled actor, musician and writer. When we spoke with him he was preparing to take on one of Shakespeare’s toughest and most controversial roles, Richard III. Here, he speaks about the role and his views on what it’s like to be a disabled actor.
You’re preparing for the role of Richard III. Which camp are you in regarding his reputation: ‘evil’ or ‘misrepresented’?
There’s the real Richard III and there’s Shakespeare’s Richard III. Shakespeare’s is the most famous disabled villain of all time and in all drama. The lines are the lines… He’s a self-hating, plotting, evil genius who has his wicked way and then pays for it. You can’t change that. Anthony Sher famously used two sticks, Ian McKellen added an eyepatch and Kevin Spacey had a weird fetishey leg brace; there’s always been added accoutrement from actors who presumably don’t think they’re able enough to portray him. We didn’t go down that route but you can’t change the play.
The director has the ultimate decision on this kind of thing but I don’t think I’ll be ‘putting on’ many impairments that I don’t actually have.
Given that Richard’s real remains have been re-discovered and conﬁ rmed as those of a disabled person, do you now have a licence to play-up the disability side of the performance?
Yes and no… What’s interesting is if we’ll see a different type of visceral reaction from the audience because they’ll see a real person, with real deformities, playing a famously deformed character – and how the other characters hate and disparage him: “Thou deformed foul beast of Satan…” etc. How will that resonate with an audience who are seeing the real thing? There’s a real lived experience that the actor transmits, and I’m hoping that’ll be the case with my Richard.
I’m unlikely to pretend to have a curvature of the spine but who’s to say that Richard didn’t ‘up’ his disability at certain times when he needed to, and who’s to say that he didn’t minimise it and stand a little taller from time-to-time, as it were? Because the options afforded disabled people are lessened, we have a greater invention and coping strategies that involve a little trickery from time-to-time and a little social manipulation.
Back in those days, people really did believe that deformity – other than losing an arm in battle – was the work of the Devil. There’s a lot of self-hatred going on which Richard clearly expresses. It’s a delicious mix of having to balance all of those things. I’m very much looking forward to working with Barrie (Rutter, director) and the cast, to ﬁnd my Richard, with all of those concerns and considerations because I want to honour the role but I also want to, of course, be done with all of that awful ‘disability acting’ that some Richard’s have done in the past.
“I want to honour the role but I also want to, of course, be done with all of that awful ‘disability acting’ that some Richard’s have done in the past.”
When the Hull Truck (theatre company) approached you about Richard III was it convenient that you were an actor, or convenient that you’re disabled?
It was a conversation with the casting director and Barrie Rutter that produced the invitation for me to audition. Barrie is very much into what they used to call ‘colour-blind casting’. Barrie is very open to this kind of thing and it doesn’t surprise me that it was they and not the RSC or the Globe that suggested having a disabled actor play the role. It’s a very interesting casting. I think it’s only appropriate for ‘now’ and I think that as we speak in 2017 we are ﬁnally seeing a small cultural shift in theatre and that actually, it’s ﬁnally expanding in the way we thought it might.
An awareness of the attention that that might cause is appropriate for a City of Culture and the fact that it’s 2017. I’m not saying that they’ve booked a freak for the freak show – and I can play one.
You’ve never shied away from those kind of controversies. Is it necessary to shock? Is everything you do a mini ‘campaign’?
I court them because it creates a reaction. I suppose it is, by default and in parallel, as a sort of sidecar to my motorbike. It’s there and I’m aware of it – sometimes I pay attention and sometimes I just let it ride alongside. That side of me was scintillated by the offer of Richard III. There’s an aspect of me that thinks ‘Ooh, yeah, that’s going to be a fun one’ because it’s so different and pushes the boundary.
Do you relish any particular lines for their shock power?
Funnily enough I’ve just got to one: “Then be your eyes witness to this evil. See how I’m witched and bewitched. Behold mine arm. It’s like a blasted sapling withered up.”
That’s going to be fun. There are lines like that which I can use and that other actors can’t.
I’ve found myself accidentally saying (about the difﬁ culties in the play) ‘I’ve reached the hump’. If I can’t say that, who can?
Is there a responsibility to ‘turn up’ or ‘tone down’ some of that?
Some of it will have that added frisson and added thrill factor for the audience with me just saying the lines and at other times, we may decide – as a production, to push some of it because it’s so delicious to be able to do so. Hopefully that won’t bleed into indulgence.
Being on stage is physically demanding. It’s longer than TV or even drumming in a gig I’d imagine. Does this cause you any issues?
It’s Shakespeare, so you’ve got to get it 100% right. It’s a monumentally physical part. The lines alone make it a toughie. It really is the lead role of lead roles because Richard’s in virtually every scene and drives the plot in most cases.
I started acting in 1994 and I don’t think I would’ve been ready, even a few years ago for this role. It has taken all of my accumulated skills and stamina to be able to consider doing this. It comes at a good time in my life – but this is the ﬁrst time I’ve felt scared or frightened and I wake up in the morning petriﬁed. It’s the ﬁrst time I’ve felt that in my stomach for a very long time – but it’s something I welcome.
In terms of disability – there are many disabled actors I know that would relish this chance and who would be better than me at it. I think the thing about Richard III or an epic role on stage, is that you need a lot of experience to do it – and pull it off.
What’s your snapshot view of the general picture of disability representation in the arts?
It’s nowhere near enough. We might be one in 15. (Thinking of a) snapshot, because in life you start with an extreme close-up – in the mirror – and you can see only yourself and as time goes on you move further backwards and you can get a wider view as to what’s behind the mirror, to the sides and other people, with other concerns. At my age, 55, my snapshot is now, well, it’s getting a lot better… There has never been a better time to be a disabled actor because ﬁnally, those doors are opening and all the companies are ﬂapping around desperately realising that they need to up their disability inclusion and now is the time to have good ideas and be a good disabled actor. Now ﬁnally, people are looking up and saying ‘Ooh that’s interesting’ instead of ‘Ooh, that’s terrifying’ as they used to. The snapshot is that there’s all to play for. All ye who complain a lot, ﬁne, but please do something about it because, from what I’ve learned, complaining from the wings is less successful than talking about it from centrestage with a piece you wrote yourself. Easy to say – hard to do…
What can the man in the play or the history book say about being disabled today?
I think about the inventiveness and the way we (disabled people) have to think around the corner and outside of the box just to get a look in. So we use inventive manipulation and assessment of a situation to better our position within it. Boy, does Richard employ that! He’s very Machiavellian.
I think what it shows is that disabled people can have power and can really play people, can be found attractive, can be terrifying and that if you give someone an evil reputation, because of their body, then everybody will load into that all of the time. It’s then pretty hard not to end up being evil – so please, everyone stop thinking we’re the work of the Devil – although, I’m (personally) the work of the Devil!
Richard III, by William Shakespeare, directed by Barrie Rutter is on at:
Hull Truck Theatre 4-27 May
Tel: 01482 323638
The Viaduct Theatre, Halifax 30 May – 3 June