After drama school, Hughes did not immediately secure an agent — unlike many of his colleagues. “Voices in my head were going, ‘Are you a risk?’” he said, but those doubts lifted after he secured a role in a production by Graeae, a British theater company that casts deaf and disabled actors. Before then, Hughes said, he felt his appearance “was going to hold me back,” but after being surrounded by other disabled actors, he felt empowered. He even started wearing short sleeves to highlight his limb difference, he added.
The Royal Shakespeare Company show is Hughes’s most high-profile casting to date. In May, Doran gave an interview to The Times of London that was headlined: “Able-Bodied Actors Cannot Be Richard III.” In a letter of complaint to that newspaper, Doran said that the headline was misleading. His point, he wrote, was that, although anybody could play the role, a disabled actor could “enhance the performance and impact of the production.”
Richard III is often portrayed as an almost comedic bad guy, Hughes said, often with a fake “hump and limp.” While not trying to hide the character’s villainy, he hoped to draw attention to his motivations: “You can see a despot and tyrant,” he said, “but also a little boy who hasn’t been loved and someone who’s shunned and outcast and is underestimated.”
Mat Fraser, another disabled actor, who played Richard III in a production in Hull in northern England in 2017, said that the king was often played by older performers who could make the king seem a “withered little twig.” But Hughes is young and muscular — better suited to portraying a monarch who died at age 32 on a battlefield, Fraser said. “We’re going to see the most real Richard III there’s ever been,” he added.
Hughes said he was already looking beyond his turn as Richard to other Shakespeare roles, and would love to play Hamlet, and Iago from “Othello.”
“I’d like to play a role that’s not specified as disabled,” he said. “Obviously, whichever role I play will be disabled by the very nature of me playing it,” he added. “But that’s not the point.”
Through Oct. 8 at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, England; rsc.org.uk.