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Today I pay tribute to a remarkable book written by a great actor, who has inspired me and countless others.
I was privileged back in 2011 to see Anthony Sher on stage playing is playing Edmund Kean in John Paul Sartre’s pastiche of Shakespeare entitled “Kean.” It was a very good casting because this actor very clearly had a lot of raw energy and at the same time charisma and wit. But at the same time, he also seemed to have tenderness, sadness, and insecurity behind his eyes. I didn’t realize it but this actor, Sir Antony Sher, who sadly passed away just last year, would change my life.
When I was still in college I knew that I was going to go to grad school, and I wanted to write a graduate thesis on Richard III. Through my research, I came to realize that this same actor produced what is still regarded it as one most acclaimed and influential productions of the play ever. In 1984, Sir Antony played an iconic Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Company which was revolutionary for its raw energy, tragic emotions, and creative physicality. Mr. Sher played the role on crutches and was able to scuttle around the stage like a spider.
I feel very therefore very privileged that I was at Able to see him perform live and to research his performance for my thesis.
One of my greatest aids for this was Sir Antony’s own book about the process of writing Richard that he wrote while in the process of doing Richard, “A Year Of the King. It’s organized in the form of a diary and a lot of the pages are available for free on Google Books. I strongly recommend it. In this review, I’m going to praise his massive preparations for the role talk about the effects of the production going forward in future productions of Richard III.
In 1982, Sir Antony was playing the Fool in a production of King Lear with Michael Gambon, (the future Dumbledore from Harry Potte). During during the performance, Sher suffered a leg injury that required him to be on crutches for several months. In his diary, Sher records how angry being perceived as disabled made him feel. His physical therapy took place at the Remedial Dance Clinic, Harley St. Six months later in August of 1983 Sher was cast in Tartuffe with Bill Alexander as director, (who would later direct him again in Richard III). A chance meeting with Trevor Nunn, (who was the Artistic director at the time), put the idea of him playing Richard into Alexander’s head. After another meeting with Terry Hands, Sher was offered the role.
“The truth of the matter was I was terrified of the verse, ashamed of my inexperience with it and nursing a fear that I was trespassing anyway. Wasn’t classical theatre the territory of handsome, rich-voiced Brittish giants like Gielgud and Oliver, and out of bounds for little Cape Town newbies like me?”
Sher, Year Of the King, page 9
Fighting with Olivier
When Antony Sher approached the role of Richard in his 1984 RSC production, his first intention was to make his portrayal of Richard’s deformity and disability different from Laurence Olivier’s. Sher and Olivier believed Richard is both physically and mentally deformed, therefore, Sher’s massive preparation for the role included thorough research into the physical effects of real disability and a deep examination of its psychological effects. Unlike Olivier, Mr. Sher believed that Richard’s deformity was the key to understanding his character and that every aspect of Sher’s characterization stemmed from his interpretation of that deformity. This work produced a captivating physical characterization and a startlingly human re-conception of Richard’s mind.
Sher’s characterization of Richard’s body resulted in an image, which he referred to as “The Bottled Spider.” Richard had a massive hump in the center of his back, massive arms, and two crutches that fitted onto Sher’s forearms, allowing him to scuttle across the stage, giving the impression of a poisonous spider. Sher created this iconic physical characterization through a combination of textual research, sketches, medical research into real deformities, image research, and real-life experience. The guiding principles that Sher used in creating Richard’s deformity were creating a severely deformed character that the audience would identify with. At the same time, Sher attempted to create a physicality that he could sustain through the run of the show without major injuries (21 &30). According to Sher, the role of Richard III is legendary for crippling actors who sustain severe damage to their backs and shoulders (39). Thus Antony Sher’s Richard was physically designed to be both functional for the actor, and both realistic and remarkable for the audience.
The first step towards Sher’s physical characterization of Richard was going through the text for clues. Sher found several references to what Richard’s deformity looks like in the speeches of Queen Margaret, (unlike Cibber, Sher’s version kept the character of Margaret in the play). Margaret refers to Richard repeatedly as various beasts, alternating between Boars, hounds, and the bottled spider that would become so important to the final characterization. Before Sher settled on a spider as the animal Richard most resembles, he experimented with several others including boars, apes and bulls. Sher did several sketches of bulls, which he saw in a BBC TV program. Sher was attracted to bulls and their raw power and massive shoulders. Sher wanted an animal that was threatening and powerful to give his portrayal a ‘tragic dimension’ (64).
Having to say ‘I was born in South Africa’ stuck in my throat like a confession of guilt.’
Sher, p. 25
Another image from the text that Sher thought about repeatedly was the image of Richard’s hump as a mountain. When Richard refers to his hump as “an envious mountain on my back,” Sher thought back to the Lion’s Head mountain in Kingstown South Africa. Sher grew up in South Africa and visited there during apartheid. The mountain spoke to Sher’s notion of Richard’s raw, tragic power. Sher sketched the mountain several times, and combined it with other images of bulls and spiders and this became the overall concept for Richard’s hump- an image of thick power that simultaneously weighs down the figure of Richard, and gives him his strength.
I feel he should be severely deformed, not just politely crippled as he’s often played. Bill says one should identify with him: a man looking in from the outside and thinking, ‘I’ll have some of that.’
November 7, 1983
The most memorable part of Sher’s physical performance as Richard was the way he manipulated the two arm crutches that he wore for the first half of the performance. Sher’s Bottled Spider image mainly depended on his ability to manipulate the crutches. The crutches became part of Richard’s body (Cerasano 621) and, far from making Sher’s movements clumsy or stiff, they gave him the ability to transform himself into a strange four-legged creature that would move around the stage incredibly fast. Director Bill Alexander told Sher during rehearsals that he intended to use the crutches in as many ways as possible. For example, the crutches also served as a weapon because of Sher’s ability to swing them around like clubs. One chilling moment of the performance occurred when Sher’s Richard entraps lord Hastings (Brian Blessed) by folding his crutch-arm across Hasting’s neck; foreshadowing Richard’s later decision to chop off Hastings’ head (Cerasano 621).
The problem in playing him extremely deformed is to devise a position that would be 100 per-cent safe to sustain over three hours, and for a run that could last for two years. Play him on crutches perhaps? They would take a lot of the strain off the danger areas: lower back, pelvis and legs. And my arms are quite strong after months at the gym. Also I was on crutches for months after the operation so they have a personal association for me of being disabled. They could be permanently part of Richard tied to his arms. The line, ‘Behold mine arm is like a blasted sapling wither’d up,’ could refer to one of them literally. The crutches idea is attractive, too attractive at this early stage. Must keep an open mind on the subject.
Sunday Nov, 19, 1983
Physical therapist Charlette Arnold, helped Sher get into clinics for people with real disabilities. She also provided Sher with books on back disorders, which led Sher to choose the back disorder Kyphosis as the model for Richard’s hump. Kyphosis causes a large central hump in the back, which Sher immediately adopted because it resembled the mountain image of his sketches. Also, the central hump was different from Olivier’s side hump. Sher’s research on back disorders was of great use in the coronation scene in which he and Lady Anne appear with bare backs. Bill Alexander hired makeup artist Christopher Tucker to create a lifelike prosthetic for Richard’s back. The audience was thus forced to see Richard as a naked, deformed man, contrasted next to the beautiful bare back of his wife, creating a powerful moment that re-enforced Richard’s humanity. Sher would also use a humanistic approach to his portrayal of Richard’s mind, which, like Richard’s body, he developed through extensive research.
Psychology- Richard III on the couch
“In several copies I’ve looked at it’s called The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Yet a tradition has evolved of playing it as black comedy. I’ve never seen anyone play Richard’s pain, his anger, his bitterness, all of which is abundant in the text. It seems to me that Richard’s personality has been deeply and dangerously affected by his deformity, and that one has to show this connection.
November 19, 1983 p. 30
In his research, Sher made the link between deformity and psychopathology. Unlike Oliver, who played Richard as a paranoic, Sher played Richard as a psychopath. In his research into psychopaths, Sher uncovered the idea that psychopaths often suffer childhood traumas. The text of Richard suggests that Richard’s mother hated him, and such a lack of affection could realistically change a boy into a psychopath. Through this probing of the text and research into psychology, Sher concluded that Richard’s deformity is a realistic source of desire for revenge.
Sher talked to his own psychiatrist, Monty Berman who provided him with insight into Richard’s mind. Monty helped Sher dispel the idea that Richard is a superhuman fiend. On the contrary, Richard’s persona is very similar to real live psychopaths. Berman theorized that the pain at being deformed, coupled with the violent upbringing Richard had living through the Wars of the Roses, could transform Richard into a remorseless killer.
Sher: “How do you explain Richard the Third then?” Monty: “Well, how did you feel when you were on crutches last year?” Sher: “I hated people staring at me.” Monty: “What did you want to say to them?” Sher: “F#$% off! What are you staring at?” Monty: “Precisely. Anger. Richard is revenging himself on the whole world, destroying a world he sees as hating him.”
Monty: “We treat the disabled appallingly. They come up against dreadful prejudice. The disabled person experiences frustration and if given the chance, will lash out.” Sher: “So are you saying Richard’s behavior is normal?” Monty: “Under the circumstances, absolutely normal.”
Sher and Berman also believe Richard has the humor of a psychopath- a sardonic wit that has no regard for the feelings of his audience. Sher looked at the parallels between Richard III, and serial killer David Nilsen, who would invite people over for tea and strangle them, and boil their heads on his stove. Nilsen once told police with Richard-like humor that; “Having corpses was better than going back to an empty house.” One could easily hear the same sort of gruesome wit in the phrase: “I do love thee so, that I shall shortly send thy soul to heaven,” (R3 I,i).
A psychopath like Richard kills in order to try and feel emotion; “Each murder is an attempt to release anger, an attempt at catharsis, and each time it is unrelieved. It’s like promiscuous sex without love. Each climax is less and less fulfilling so the appetite grows until it is insatiable.” Thus Berman allowed Sher to break with the tradition of playing Richard as a completely inhuman monster, and play him as a very real, very human tortured soul.
Although Antony Sher attempted to play Richard as a psychopath, his portrayal of Richard’s pain could become sympathetic. His observation of people in clinics and his own personal experience of being on crutches taught him about the cruelty that the disabled suffer. However, although he did very great work to try and understand the condition of being deformed and disabled, his portrayal was still an affected disability; an act. In the book “Framed: Interpreting Disability in Today’s Media,” the author speaks about how watching an able bodied actor play disability can actually alienate the audience from the character he is portraying. The performance is seen as an act, a novelty, not an honest representation of real people. One way to eliminate this barrier between character and actor is to cast a Richard who really does suffer from a disability or deformity. I’ve talked in previous posts about how last month’s Public Theater performance was a deliberate attempt to move away from theatrical illusion and re-contextualize Richard’s deformity in the form of race, and contextualize disability by letting actors with disabilities play the heroic parts, while only Richard was able-bodied.
In a way, like Olivier, Sher’s performance is a new monolith that actors must work hard to distinguish themselves from. He spent an entire year building his Richard from the ground up, experimenting with new ways to portray his deformities, his disability, his psychology, and of course, how he looks and moves onstage. Reading this book, an actor gets a great appreciation for all the work Sir Antony Sher included in this wonderful performance, and hopefully, the book will inspire new and creative ways to portray this character in the future.
Thank you for reading. If you want to see some of Sher’s physical and psychological techniques in practice, please watch the thesis presentation that I did at the Blackfriars playhouse below. If you are interested in signing up for one of my acting courses, click here. Thank you!
This past month, there was a free production of Richard III in New York’s Shakespeare In the Park, starring Danai Gurira as the title character. I have not seen this production, though I wish I had. I enjoyed the actress Ms. Gurrira in such films as “Black Panther,” and would love to see her do Shakespeare. What is more, the concept intrigues me. This project explores themes of toxic masculinity, racial identity, inferiority, and misogyny.
Unsurprisingly, with so many heady topics in the production, this Richard III is still somewhat controversial. Some right-wing critics dismissed the whole production as a piece of ‘woke propaganda,’ but I feel this is unfair.
When Danai Gurira of Marvel’s “Black Panther” first takes the stage in the title role, the actress has no perceivable hunchback or arm trouble. And yet the dialogue suggesting Richard suffers from a lifelong physical issue (“rudely stamped”) has been kept in. Perhaps we are to use our imaginations. Who knows? We are certainly tempted to close our eyes.
I will not judge this production based on the acting because I haven’t been able to see it. What I will do is take a stance on the validity of the concept. Specifically, I want to ask if this play is a good examination of toxic masculinity and if it would it be worthwhile to see it portrayed by a black woman, as opposed to a white man. The short answer is an emphatical “Yes.”
Richard III is definately an example of toxic masculinity. He is violent, full of hatred, vengeance, and mysogeny. He is constantly insulting women from Lady Anne, Jane Shore, Queen Elizabeth, and even his own mother. In fact, the source of Richard’s toxic attitude is that he blames his mother for his disability and deformity:
Well, say there is no kingdom then for Richard;1635 What other pleasure can the world afford? I'll make my heaven in a lady's lap, And deck my body in gay ornaments, And witch sweet ladies with my words and looks. O miserable thought! and more unlikely1640 Than to accomplish twenty golden crowns! Why, love forswore me in my mother's womb: And, for I should not deal in her soft laws, She did corrupt frail nature with some bribe, To shrink mine arm up like a wither'd shrub;1645 To make an envious mountain on my back, Where sits deformity to mock my body; To shape my legs of an unequal size; To disproportion me in every part, Like to a chaos, or an unlick'd bear-whelp1650 That carries no impression like the dam. And am I then a man to be beloved? O monstrous fault, to harbour such a thought!. 3H6, Act III, Scene i, lines 1635-1653.
Now I should clarify the difference between deformity and disability, which are characteristics that Richard III has as part of his character makeup. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, a disability is defined as: “A physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities.” This could include paralysis, autism, or any number of congenital or acquired conditions. Richard’s disability is primarily his limp (caused by his unequally shaped limbs), and his withered arm. What’s interesting in this production is that while the title role is played by an able-bodied woman, most of the rest of the cast have actual disabilites. Watch this clip of the famous courtship scene between Richard and Lady Anne, who plays her role in a wheel-chair.
While a disability is a legal term that is recognized by lawyers and governments alike, the term “deformity” is more subjective; it generally refers to any kind of cosmetic imperfection. In Richard III, this applies to Richard’s hump and withered arm.
The Elizabethans thought that deformity was a sign of disfavor from God, and that deformed people were constantly at odds with God and nature, as Francis Bacon puts it in his essay, “On Deformity.”
As deformed people are physically impaired by nature; they, in turn, devoid themselves of ‘natural affection’ by being unmerciful and lacking emotions for others. By doing so, they get their revenge on nature and hence achieve stability.
Richard III has this drive for revenge in spades and I believe it manifests itself as a particularly terrible form of toxic masculinity. Richard definitely wants the crown to make up for his lack of ‘natural affection,’ but he is also especially malevolent towards women.
I, that am rudely stamp’d, and want love’s majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days
Seeing a woman play this kind of misogynist dialogue forces the audience to take it out of context and question Richard’s point of view. We see casual misogyny every day, and seeing a woman deliver it is quite illuminating.
Richard’s deformity and Blackness
Another provocative choice by Danai Gurira’s portrayal of Richard is the fact that she plays the role of Richard without the hump or withered arm. She herself explains that for her production, Richard’s perceived deformity, is actually represented by her being a black woman:
He’s dealing with the otherness compared to his family, in terms of not being Caucasian and fair like them.” The word ‘fair’, is used a lot in the play.
Shakespeare writes Richard as constantly striving to compensate for his deformities by being clever, violent, and eventually, by becoming king. As I wrote before in my review of Othello, for centuries black people have been portrayed as inferior; aberrations of the ‘ideal fair-skinned form’. So, to the Elizabethans, blackness itself was a form of deformity, and the rawness of addressing this uncomfortable fact in this production should be commended.
English people are already trained—and we have scholars like Anthony Barthelemy has talked about this in his book Black Face, Maligned Race, where the image of blackness, as associated with sin, with the devil, all of these things, makes it quite easy to map onto then Black people these kinds of characteristics. Then, those kinds of characteristics allow for the argument that these people are fit to be enslaved. – Dr. Ambereen Dadabhoy, Race and Blackness in Elizabethan England Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 168
So while I can’t speak to the production’s acting or staging, I will emphatically defend the notion that this production’s concept is valid. Richard III is an example of toxic masculinity through his self-hatred, violence, misogyny, and narcissism. In addition, as I’ve written before, in the Early Modern Period, blackness was considered an aberration or deformity, and seeing it in the person of Richard, with the implicit understanding that black people still face this kind of prejudice today, opens a much-needed dialogue that any production of Shakespeare shouldn’t be afraid to open.
In short, by re-contextualizing Richard’s deformity and disabilities, this production gets to the heart of the play’s moral for our times. The early modern period’s toxic attitudes towards deformity and disability created the Renaissance monster of Richard III. We in the 21st century must examine our own societal prejudices and toxic attitudes so this monster does not come to haunt us in real life.