Richard III opens with one of Shakespeare’s most famous speeches. The audience have barely got their coats off before the scheming future king delivers the ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’ soliloquy and Mat Fraser is already feeling the weight of expectation.
“I promise I will have sorted it before the audience ever get near it, but that speech is the most immense pressure,” he says on a break from rehearsals at Hull Truck Theatre. “Everyone is waiting for it and you have to find a way to deliver it realistically as though Richard has been ruminating and not like he’s just heard the stage manager shout, ‘Go, this is the big one’.”
Fraser, who was born with phocomelia of both arms after his mother was prescribed the Thalidomide drug to ease morning sickness, has just opened in Northern Broadsides’ 25th anniversary production of the history play right back where the company started as part of Hull City of Culture. That anniversary and the fact he is the first disabled actor to play the role means there is a lot riding on this Richard’s shoulders.
“When my agent called to say Barrie Rutter wanted me to audition for Richard III you could have knocked me down with a feather. I have been around the block enough to know that there aren’t many directors who will trust a disabled actor in a lead role. Even less who will trust them in a Shakespearean lead role.”
Still fewer who would trust it to a disabled actor who is best known for his work in cabaret, who has embraced freak show entertainment and who happily admits that between the ages of 45 and 53 the majority of his income came from working as a stripper.
“Of course I had huge reservations about taking the job and about whether I would be able to deliver,” he says. “ In fact the morning after I had said ‘yes’ I woke up sweating. I was ready to call Barrie to say, ‘I’m really sorry, but I can’t do this’. Instead I had a coffee, looked in the mirror and told myself to pull it together.”
While lacking classical training, Fraser says he was desperate to prove that Rutter’s faith in his ability was not misplaced.
“Normally a lead role takes me three weeks to learn, Richard III took six weeks. Fortunately I wasn’t on another job and my wife is a pretty vicious line runner, so by the time I got up here I was confident that at least I knew the words.It’s pretty intimidating coming into a room of 14 Shakespearean stalwarts. I thought, ‘I’m going to be exposed as an idiot’. They couldn’t have been more welcoming, but you tell yourself all these silly things.”
Broadsides has form when it comes to turning Shakespeare virgins into bona fide theatrical stars. They did it with Lenny Henry in Othello in 2009 and the company now looks set to do it again.“In one of my first conversations with Barrie I remember saying, ‘I think the audience needs to see Richard’s intention before they hear him speak’. You wouldn’t be able to print his reply, but let’s just say he told me that really wasn’t necessary, that the words were the thing. He’s right. I’d watched a bit of Kevin Spacey who played Richard in a leg brace and Laurence Olivier and Ian McKellen, but I quickly decided I needed to find my own Richard before I looked at anyone else’s.
“Historically he was always portrayed as the ruthless hunchback king and while recent historians have attempted to debunk those clichés, you can’t change Shakespeare’s words. He portrayed him as evil and in Elizabethan times that evil was absolutely linked to his deformity. It’s a part which is super fun to play, but it is also weirdly liberating.”
Fraser admits that his experience with Rutter and Broadsides has given him a taste for Shakespearean roles.
“I love poetry and with Shakespeare nothing has just one meaning. It’s like the layers of an onion, you peel one off and there is another one underneath. That’s very exciting, but the truth is there are only a few Shakespearean roles that a disabled actor can play. There’s Puck, which I’ve done, Caliban and possibly Malvolio and none of them have the depths of Richard. But you know what, there aren’t many parts for women either, so I’m good with that.”
While born and brought up here, having married American burlesque performer Julie Atlas Muz, Fraser now lives most of the time in New York and it’s the US which has given him his biggest breaks. Having had a long association with Coney Island’s famous freak show, in 2015 he was cast in the television series American Horror Show playing Seal Boy.
“For me it was proof of that old truism that you should never chase success. Previously I been offered and turned down a part in the Broadway musical Side Show about Daisy and Violet Hilton, the conjoined twins who became famous stage performers in the 1930s.
“It would have looked good on the CV, but I knew I would have spent most of my time standing in the wings watching non-disabled actors play disabled characters. Instead, Julie and I went off to do a burlesque production of Beauty and the Beast. One night a casting director happened to be in the audience who knew her friend was looking for people like me to be in American Horror Show. Three days later I had the part.”
A part in one of those long running US dramas are what many British actors dream off and Fraser admits that for a while he assumed he would always be the first name on any director’s lips.
“I’m old enough and wise enough to know that these sort of jobs come along every four or five years. At the time everyone tells you it will be life-changing, but then the hype passes and you go back to doing what you did before. And yet even with all my experience when it came to American Horror Show, I started to believe that this was it. I even remember telling my wife I couldn’t do such and such because I might land another big telly part.”
Whatever the vagaries of showbusiness, Fraser is always busy – at the moment there’s also a stage version of The Wicker Man in the pipeline and a plan to bring panto to New York audiences with a left-field version of Jack and the Beanstalk.
“Pantos have always failed in the US because they have been too faithful to the English tradition. We will have a Dame, but it won’t be Jack who gets to cut down the beanstalk it will be the community who come together to slay the giant.
“In times of trouble society always retreats into children’s theatre as a way of telling the real story. Let’s just say if you live in New York it doesn’t take a genius to work out who the giant is going to be.”
Fraser says that he noticed the atmosphere change the day after Donald Trump was elected president. That and the rise of the far right in France should, he says, be a wake up call for the artistic community who have spent too long living in a left-leaning bubble.
“If any good comes out of what’s happen in politics is that it might actually galvanise people into action. It wasn’t pretty to see how the press treated Bernie Sanders knowing that he was the only person who could save us from Trump, but it happened and we have to get on with it and in dark times I’ve always thought entertaining people and taking them out of their ordinary lives is a pretty honourable profession.”
* Richard III, Hull Truck Theatre, to May 27. 01423 323638, hulltruck.co.uk. Viaduct Theatre, Halifax, May 30 to June 3. 01422 255266, deanclough.com.