‘The level of hate was dangerous’: Michelle Terry on the backlash to her casting as Richard III | Michelle Terry

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Michelle Terry, the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, has called the backlash to her casting as Richard III “disproportionate” and said much of the anger aimed towards her in recent months has been misogynistic.

The Globe faced widespread criticism when it was announced that Terry, an Olivier award-winning actor and writer, would play Shakespeare’s “deformd, unfinish’d” king in its summer production opening on Tuesday night.

Actors and disability groups said the role could not be successfully performed by a non-physically disabled lead actor, and that the decision contravened the Globe’s ethos of diversity and inclusion.

“We’re interpreting a 400-year-old play,” Terry said in her first interview since the casting announcement. “[The response] felt disproportionate to what a play can actually do, in terms of being able to really dig into the inequities of a society.”

The criticism followed a number of recent portrayals of Richard III by disabled actors, which were perceived to have reclaimed a character who in real life had scoliosis.

Among those condemning the Globe were Brittanie Pallett, an actor with a disability, who asked why the theatre’s artistic director was “hiring themselves to play the lead when it’s not their casting or lived experience”.

Ben Wilson, an actor who is blind, described it as a case of “cripping up”, while the Disabled Artists Alliance published an open letter, signed at the time by more than 100 people and organisations in theatre and the arts, calling for “an immediate recast”.

“We anticipated some discussion, but none of us predicted this,” Terry said, pointing out that the Bridgerton star Adjoa Andoh had played Richard III just a few months earlier, with little resistance.

Criticism of Terry being cast in the role follows a number of recent portrayals of Richard III by disabled actors. Photograph: Marc Brenner

“But even if you just take the high-profile productions of Richard III over the last 20 years, there are a lot of men who have played this role, including Ralph Fiennes, Kevin Spacey and Benedict Cumberbatch. And there’s been nothing, nothing,” Terry added.

“The misogyny has far outweighed the disability discourse. There was potential for nuance around a really vital discussion around disability justice – which as an organisation we’re engaged in. But the level of hate and anger towards me was dangerous. Bad things happens to people when this stuff is allowed to run rife.”

She said the irony was “that that misogyny is also the prism through which we’re exploring the play”.

Terry said her production questioned Shakespeare’s exaggeration of the early modern belief that disability was an outward expression of inner evil, instead exploring Richard for what he was – a murderer and a sexual predator.

“The minute we removed the references to ‘deformity’, it became a play about a tyrant. When we were talking about the idea, we knew we were heading into an election year where most democracies were going to the ballot box, including our own and the US,” she said.

“Documentaries were coming out left, right and centre [about men who used their positions of power to abuse women and children]. We thought: which play is speaking most directly to us now? It was so glaringly obvious that it was Richard III.”

She emphasised parallels between the play and the world today, where people are “still seduced by the charisma of evil”. “Men like Richard are everywhere, and they continue to hold positions of power. Even when the accusations and the evidence is so clear, they still continue to get away with it.”

Terry said she was a firm believer in the “anti-literalism” of Shakespeare, which affords all artists the right to play all parts.

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“I am the custodian of a canon of 37 plays, and part of the reason that we’ve been able to diversify so quickly is because that canon does not rely on fixity,” she said. “The protected characteristics of a character do not have to align with the protected characteristics of the actor. We’re not the prefix that comes before our names – like female, trans, Black. I would worry about ringfencing any role in Shakespeare.”

She cited the example this year of Francesca Amewudah-Rivers being cast as Juliet – for which the actor received a barrage of online racist abuse. Similarly, the Rada president David Harewood’s experience of playing Romeo in the 80s led him to recently criticise those who say “you can’t play that role because you’re not disabled, or you can’t play that because you’re not really from there”.

Asked if she would cast a white Othello or a non-Jewish Shylock, Terry said she would consider it if the interrogation was “kind and necessary” enough.

“If the best artist comes to me and says ‘the only way I can expose anti-Black racism in Othello or antisemitism in Merchant of Venice is to do it this way’, that has to be worthy of conversation. To shut that down means I no longer understand what it is to be an artist. It should be OK for art to be interesting, to be a provocation.”

Terry said she made a ‘conscious decision’ not to alter her physicality for the role. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Terry also said she had made a “conscious decision” not to alter her physicality for the role of Richard. “But the idea that our own actors union said a disabled artist isn’t playing this role … how do you know that? No one asked me or the director [Elle While] how we identified. That would be illegal. But if we’re now asking actors to declare their characteristics, how are we then protecting them?”

Terry has been the artistic director of the Globe since 2018, after work at the RSC and the National Theatre. She said her position as an “actor-manager” meant she was contractually obliged to appear in a number of her own productions, just as her male predecessors – including Mark Rylance – were. “That’s the job, that’s where I lead from. I was employed to be an actor.”

She expressed regret that the row over Richard III had overshadowed the Globe’s other casting announcements, which include Francesca Mills, an actor with achondroplasia, playing the Duchess of Malfi, and Nadia Nadarajah, a deaf actor, playing Cleopatra using British Sign Language. “This casting choice exists in a much wider context of six years of progress.”

But despite her confidence in her production, she said it “would be disingenuous to say there’s not a lot of fear from me” due to the level of scrutiny.

Her hope is that the play inspires audiences to interrogate their power as citizens. “It is signalling that we are very close to some of these fascistic behaviours, but that there’s still time to change things.”

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