'I never get to play a role this juicy' - Fergus Rattigan on how speech therapy led him to acting and disabled representation on stage

Speech therapy as a young boy pointed Fergus Rattigan in the direction of performing. Now, he’s a professional actor, and one with an extra string to his bow - a highly trained stage combat fighter with Shakespeare’s Globe.

Top of his bucket list is using those skills as Richard of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s Richard III. But Rattigan is rather excited about his latest role too, leading the 100-strong community cast of York Theatre Royal’s outdoor production of Sovereign this summer. Irish actor Rattigan plays Matthew Shardlake in Mike Kenny’s adaptation of the C. J. Sansom Tudor-set novel. A disabled lawyer, Shardlake is sent to York to await the arrival of Henry VIII, who is travelling to the area to display his power and ‘sort out’ the northern rebels.

Rattigan sees much of himself reflected in the character, having felt “a bit of an outsider” as a result of his dwarfism. “When people see me, they clock that I’m different,” he says. “The same applies with him. In spite of his intelligence and his mid to high level status, he’s instantly judged by a lot of people he meets and is humiliated and mocked for his appearance…I certainly relate to being judged on sight and having to try and defy people’s expectations.”

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“When he’s in front of the King there’s a moment of embarrassment,” Rattigan adds. “I’ve felt that. I’ve been in public where everyone is staring at me for just being myself. As a short man I’ve had people laugh at me for no reason. Or they have judged me when I turned up for a job and I’m half the size they thought I was going to be. His situation is surprisingly relatable. He keeps a lot of it to himself, which is quite true to life with a lot of disabilities. The amount people are going through internally is always worse than what’s happening externally.”

Irish actor and stage combat fighter Fergus Rattigan. Photo: Alex HollandIrish actor and stage combat fighter Fergus Rattigan. Photo: Alex Holland
Irish actor and stage combat fighter Fergus Rattigan. Photo: Alex Holland

Rattigan’s dwarfism came with some mobility and verbal issues. As a child he struggled to use his hands because the muscles weren’t fully developed, and jaw problems meant that speaking was a challenge. Having had support from both a physiotherapist and speech therapist, Rattigan then started sessions with a speech and drama teacher. His mother was keen for his progression to continue. “I was a lot smaller - about half the size of other boys at primary school - and never got into sports like football and rugby. I was a drama kid instead,” Rattigan reflects. “I realised people are looking at me anyway - might as well use that to my advantage. I got addicted very young. Drama still is thankfully a space where if you’re different you’re accepted. Being different is a virtue not a vice. You can be yourself, be an individual and it adds to the colour of a play or a performance.”

In his teens, Rattigan began writing and directing his own plays and went on to study for a degree in Theatre and Drama at Trinity College Dublin, becoming heavily involved with Dublin Shakespeare Festival. A Masters degree in Shakespeare with the University of Exeter followed and he began stage fighting on a placement course at the Globe. Now he’s an honours level fighter – as high as you can go without becoming a teacher. “It took me a long time to get as good as my peers and be able to match their skills but then I realised there is no one else my size doing it and thought, ‘I’ve carved out a niche for myself here’.

Rattigan is still with the Globe today, a member of the stage combat team, which gives fight demonstrations to tourists visiting the theatre. It’s an opportunity to showcase different weapon styles from Shakespeare’s plays. "It’s wonderful to see life being injected into something that - frequently because of the way people are taught Shakespeare and theatre generally in school, people are put off,” Rattigan says. “People think ‘oh actually Shakespeare isn't this boring thing from school, it’s exciting, full of life, danger, intrigue, power dynamics’. Kids are bursting with questions and excitement.”

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Much of Rattigan’s acting work has been in Shakespeare at festivals and more recently online. His Shakespearean roles include Puck, Malvolio, most of the Mechanicals in A Midsummer Night Dream and Claudius in Hamlet. Iago (in Othello) and disabled Richard III, he says, are still on his roles-to-do list. He feels empowered by being cast as Shardlake in Sovereign. “I never get to play a role this juicy. Perhaps it could have a knock-on effect for disabled actors and different body types. Kids can see that it’s an option for the future,” he says.

Fergus Rattigan is starring in Sovereign, being staged outdoors at King’s Manor in Exhibition Square in York.Fergus Rattigan is starring in Sovereign, being staged outdoors at King’s Manor in Exhibition Square in York.
Fergus Rattigan is starring in Sovereign, being staged outdoors at King’s Manor in Exhibition Square in York.

Growing up his parents would show him productions and films that featured disabled actors, to demonstrate representation. “I remember thinking okay there is room for me here. But for a long time I accepted it was the sidekick role, the fantasy character role, the fairy or the goblin. Now it’s a possibility to be the hero, the villain, the leading character.”

Seeing people like Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones is “a big step forward” he says. “There’s a lot of times when directors and producers will cast an actor who is able bodied and get them to act disabled rather than actually casting a person with a disability. Whether that’s because they can’t find someone talented enough or whether it’s because they’re afraid of what they’ll have to deal with, it’s hard to say. My guess is it’s the latter unfortunately...

"I do feel I’m always having to work a lot harder against people the same age, ability and whatever else as me because I’m going to be seen differently or type cast. In my showreels, I feel like I have to put in more elaborate scenes to show casting directors I can play all of thse things, not just the things you think I can. It’s still an uphill battle for people who are disabled to get lead roles even if they are magnificent actors. But there is progress….It is getting better.”

Sovereign is being staged from 15-30 July outdoors at King’s Manor in Exhibition Square in York. For tickets, call 01904 623568 or visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk