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Shakespeare’s body shaming confronts Melbourne

Richard Watts

Being cast as a ‘lump of foul deformity’ is strangely liberating for Kate Mulvany. Bell Shakespeare is equally innovative off stage, doing away with outdated subscription models.
Shakespeare’s body shaming confronts Melbourne

Kate Mulvany in Bell Shakespeare's Richard 3. Image by Prudence Upton.

As a child, actor Kate Mulvany survived a rare form of cancer which left her with a severely malformed spine, resulting in what she calls ‘wonky’ posture. Playing the hunchbacked Richard 3 will allow her, for perhaps the first time on stage, to hold herself naturally, rather than fighting against her own body as she has been taught to do for most of her adult life.

Mulvany has the title role in Bell Shakespeare’s first production for 2017, a new interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s best loved villains, Richard III.

‘It’s so liberating – almost to the point of getting quite emotional about it because, well, for my entire life, I’ve been told “You must present this way. If you can, try to lift that shoulder and even though it feels strange, drop that hip, keep your back straight, as straight as you can. Wear certain clothes to disguise this.” I’ve been hauled into costume rooms and in front of cameras, I’ve been lit and costumed a certain way, and that is all well and good but it can be quite personally and psychologically debilitating. My body is doing things that it should never…’

She trails off for a moment before continuing. ‘I mean, I was told as a child that I would never walk! That I would never be able to do certain activities. And when I’m told to disguise that even more, it can be tough psychologically to go home in pain because of the way I have to hold myself every day.

‘But with Richard, I get to follow my own curve. My spine kicks off to the left in a certain way, I rest my hand on my hip in a certain way when I’m just at home in my pyjamas, and basically what I’m doing is just taking those idiosyncrasies of myself and presenting them to an audience who are used to seeing a much straighter actor – they’re going to get closer to the real me,’ Mulvany continued.

‘And for that reason I feel really proud – really proud – and I reveal a lot more in this show than I’ve ever revealed before, physically and emotionally. And that makes me really proud that my body may not be able to do certain things but it can indeed take on the backbone – literally – of Richard 3.’

Learn more about Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3

Compassion not condemnation

Mulvany said she has approached her portrayal of the scheming murderer – described in the play as a ‘lump of foul deformity’ and a ‘poisonous hunchback'd toad’ – with considerable empathy, even compassion. 

‘For me, he is the consequence of being deliberately unloved. He came out “scarce made up” into this functioning world in a way that those functioning citizens didn’t want or couldn’t accept or didn’t know how to deal with ... I think it’s a lesson in how if you treat someone like a dog, they will bite back eventually. But if you treat someone always with kindness, if we all treat each other with kindness, then kindness breeds kindness breeds kindness,’ she said.

‘Personally, I think Richard would be an extraordinary politician and leader, in Shakespeare’s text, if he’d just been shown a little bit of love – though then of course we wouldn’t have the extraordinary text that we have.’

Kate Mulvany in Bell Shakespeare's Richard 3. Image by Pierre Toussaint.

The gender agenda

While it is a departure to cast a woman in the title role, Bell Shakespeare Artistic Director Peter Evans is at pains to stress that this is not a gender-swapped version of the play. ‘It’s quite clearly Kate Mulvany but she’s playing a man,’ he explained.

Evans hopes that casting Mulvany as Richard 3 will highlight many of the play’s more troubling subtexts.

‘It feels very, very interesting having a woman play it because Shakespeare often has deeply misogynist characters. He’s very interested in that aspect of “maleness” and Richard III is a terrible misogynist and abuser, and sees women as the reason for all his problems – or they’re just obstacles or they’re invisible and he just dismisses them. And having Kate play it really brings those things out in a very troubling way,’ Evans said.

Mulvany, conversely, sees Richard III less as someone who hates women and more as someone who just doesn’t understand them.

‘There are some extremely strong women in the play,’ she said. ‘In fact I think out of all of Shakespeare’s plays we get out strongest women in Richard 3, but I think he’s such a narcissist, our Richard, that he doesn’t choose to see that – or else he does see that they’re absolutely extraordinary and doesn’t quite know how to meet that. For me, it’s about his agenda rather than his gender, so we haven’t really spoken too much in the rehearsal room about me “manning up” in any particular way,’ she said.

Book now for Richard 3

As a woman playing a man, Mulvany said she is attracted to those aspects of the character that resonate with her on a personal level.

‘The female in me can see the troubles that he has: that he is judged for his body; he is called names because of his physicality; he is assumed to be – because of certain physicalities about himself – he is assumed to be the weaker person. He is assumed to be the bottom rung of the ladder when it comes to succession,’ Mulvany said.

‘There is definitely a glass ceiling above Richard that he is very much aware of. And all of those aspects of him really appealed to the woman in me. I was like, I can understand this guy. In a way it must feel a bit worse for him because we have got used to that and we will continue to fight against it, but this is a man, surrounded by men in a men’s world, the Royal Court, who has to deal with being put in a woman’s position. So there’s a deep, deep psychology going on with Richard III that continues to unfold for me, as a woman and as a man.’

History lessons

A striking portrait of naked ambition, Richard 3 was first performed circa 1593, and tells the story of a dastardly manipulator who slaughters his family, marries his victim’s widow and betrays his allies, all in his quest for power.

Shakespeare was fascinated by medieval struggles for power, says Evans, and depicts such struggles in his plays.

‘I see the plays as meditations upon power. They’re about leadership and they’re about power – particularly the Histories and the Tragedies and the Roman plays. They’re extraordinary meditations on power and character and the way the mob works, the way society works and institutions – and in a ridiculous way, the History plays and this play in particular couldn’t be more pertinent to our times,’ said Evans.

‘The parallels are obvious, screamingly obvious, and it’s interesting, really, just how little we learn from history, and I think Shakespeare was saying that too … He’s interested in the cycles of power – and they’re all about cycles. Each history play opens with somebody being crowned and somebody burying the previous king and then by the end it’s the next person’s turn. Shakespeare is fascinated by the idea of history and the way those cycles work.’

Making history for members

Richard 3 is one of Shakespeare’s most popular History plays, making it all the more appropriate as the opening production of Bell Shakespeare’s 2017 season, which itself makes history as the company launches a new membership scheme in place of the usual subscription season model.

‘Theatre is changing. Audiences are changing,’ said Evans of the new membership program. ‘It was important to us that we find ways for every member of our audience to connect with us genuinely. The frequent flyers of the theatre world are still important, but we also need to nurture those who come and see us once a year, but come every year without fail.’

Become a Bell Shakespeare Member today

Bell Shakespeare Membership provides discounted tickets to the company’s productions over a 12 month period, but members can access the discount regardless of the number of productions they attend. It also provides discounts to hospitality and other services in either Sydney, Melbourne or Canberra, and access to special events.

‘The biggest benefit to our audience is that we will roll out production announcements throughout the year rather than all in one big announcement,’ Evans explained. ‘Every production will include membership discount prices and member events, and it means that we will be better placed to take advantage of touring opportunities, access to international productions as they announce forthcoming seasons, and also engage creative people and seize opportunities as they present themselves.’ 

Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile

For all its medieval power struggles and bloodthirsty brutality, Richard 3 is also a darkly comic play – which is another reason why Mulvany was cast in the title role, said Evans. ‘I think that Richard 3 requires a good comic actor. There is something about Richard 3 as a play – it’s almost Theatre of the Absurd.’

Mulvany hopes audiences will engage with the play’s humour as much as with its darker aspects.

‘It’s written from the mind of a very young, strong, bawdy man and as a result the play is really funny, and really cheeky, and takes a lot of risks. And you can see the seeds of many of the later plays – such as ‘To be or not to be” for example. There’s this amazing speech that Richard III gives which is the seed of “To be or not to be” and which is quite extraordinary for the trainspotters out there to go, “oh wow, this is one of his first plays and he was thinking about that all the way back then,”’ she said.  

‘And even though it’s Richard 3, which is a tragedy and a historical play, it should sometimes I think be included in Shakespeare’s comedies because it’s so funny. I think that’s a really important thing that audiences need to know, because it’s a really fun night out in the company of this nasty superhero.’

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3
Arts Centre Melbourne: 20 April – 7 May 2017

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts