An actor born with defects resulting from the drug Thalidomide has been cast as Shakespeare’s loathed and lauded villain Richard III in a new theatre production.

American Horror Story star Mat Fraser, who has a keen interest in promoting disability representation on all stages, will star in Richard III, a new play that is part of the Hull 2017 UK City of Culture program.

Mr. Fraser has phocomelia – a disorder involving malformation of the limbs – due to his mother being prescribed the drug during pregnancy.

Evolve discussion beyond clichéd narratives

In Shakespeare’s play, which depicts the Machiavellian rise to power and short reign of King Richard III of England, the king is an ugly hunchback who is “rudely stamp’d,” “deformed, unfinish’d,” and cannot “strut before a wanton ambling nymph.” He responds to his condition with an outcast’s credo: “I am determined to prove a villain / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”

Mr. Fraser, 54, started acting in 1994 with GRAEAE Theatre CO, Europe’s leading Theatre Company of disabled actors. He has shown a continuing interest in freak shows, recently played the Illustrated Seal Boy in American Horror Story: Freak Show.

Questions arose around the politics of casting able actors in freak show roles but Mr. Fraser has said he wants to evolve the discussion beyond clichéd narratives of overcoming disability, preferring to talk about the work and art.

Hull 2017 theatre commission

Mat Fraser | Photo Credits The Rake

Mat Fraser | Photo Credits The Rake

Mr Fraser’s determination to see disabled people represented more widely has led him to host the London Paralympics 2012 opening ceremony, work in the Coney Island sideshow, and in New York City’s downtown burlesque scene. In 2013 he created Beauty and the Beast with wife Julie Atlas Muz, a performance artist, actress, and burlesque star.

Richard III is the first Hull 2017 theatre commission of the second season, entitled Roots and Routes. It is directed by Barrie Rutter, artistic director and founder of Northern Broadsides, a company of northern actors performing in their natural voices that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It is celebrating the landmark by going back to its roots, restaging its earliest production Richard III, originally performed in Hull’s Marina Boatshed.

Thalidomide was prescribed during pregnancy to ease morning sickness before it was withdrawn in 1961 because it was causing birth defects. It affected babies in various ways, including shortened arms and legs, blindness, deafness, heart problems and brain damage.

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