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‘I know what it’s like to be stared at’: Shardlake star Arthur Hughes on playing CJ Sansom’s disabled Tudor sleuth
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‘I know what it’s like to be stared at’: Shardlake star Arthur Hughes on playing CJ Sansom’s disabled Tudor sleuth

Arthur Hughes wants to go on adventures. “When I was little,” he says, “I loved films. I loved Jurassic Park. I loved Back to the Future. I loved things I probably wasn’t supposed to watch, like Predator. And then of course I loved all the Disney classics. To go to a world that isn’t your own is so exciting. I wanted to tell stories like that.”

It was this desire that saw him first take to the stage in school plays, and then to eschew university in favour of drama school – although his parents persuaded him to apply to both, just in case. “There was nothing else I wanted to do,” he says. The gamble paid off as he has landed some huge roles – including being the first disabled actor to play Richard III at the RSC, and co-starring in the BBC drama Then Barbara Met Alan, the first primetime drama about the disability rights movement. To hear him tell it, his whole career has been one big thrill.

With Shardlake, his new drama out tomorrow on Disney+, Hughes got what he wanted: the show is nothing but adventure. Set during the reign of Henry VIII, Shardlake has a classic quest at its core. Hughes plays the title role – a lawyer sent out by Thomas Cromwell to solve a grisly murder in a remote monastery. Filming “was intense” apparently. “We were doing some six-day weeks, 12-hour days. I’d shut my eyes at the end of the day and when I opened them I was back riding the horse. But it was great. We were travelling all around Eastern Europe. We were in castles, on horses – up to my neck in a bog!” He grins.

‘In the past, I have hidden my disability’ … HughesView image in fullscreen

Whichever of Hughes’s many roles we talk about, he can’t disguise how much fun he had. This seems in contrast to the roles themselves, which are often complex, brooding, gnarly characters, from Shakespeare’s scheming Richard III to troubled-yet-brilliant disability activist Alan Holdsworth in Then Barbara Met Alan. But perhaps that is part of the fun for Hughes, who, as a disabled actor, is determined to portray disabled characters in their full complexities.

Early in his career, Hughes played parts that existed only as a “punchbag or sob story”, but now he has learned to use the subversion of audience assumptions to both dramatic and comedic effect. “People expect disabled characters, disabled people, to be one thing. So you do something else. That unexpected edge can be your power.” This is true, he adds, beyond the stage.

As Shardlake, he really gets to play with these perceptions. Shardlake might have been a one-dimensional character – a principled lawyer out to find the truth while conniving people try to manipulate his work for their own nefarious ends. But Hughes knows that, in many ways, that would only reinforce a stereotype of disabled people as saint-like but feeble and at the mercy of others. So he insists on playing Shardlake as a good fighter. “He does not present as a formidable adversary,” he says, “but he’s actually very strong, very quick.”

Unexpected edge … Hughes as Richard III.View image in fullscreen

Hughes was saddened by the death last week of CJ Sansom, the writer of Shardlake. “He gave us such an incredible body of work,” he says. “Shardlake came into my life quite poignantly this year and it was an honour to bring him to the screen. I relayed a few messages to Chris while making our show and he received them warmly. In Matthew Shardlake, he created a hero of the Tudor period who was complex, modern, unique and enduring. I hope we did him proud.”

Shardlake, Hughes adds, lives “in a world where the devil is real, curses are real, and people make the sign of the cross when they notice his disability”. And he is keen to show how the prejudice Shardlake experiences has made him resilient and, at times, impenetrable. “I wanted to portray the armour of him – the strength and the resilience that make him quite a stocky, immovable character. He’s a kind of Lone Ranger, built to withstand people’s prejudices as well as the violence of that time. But even if the hurt of an insult will not register on the face, it will register inside.”

As a disabled person watching the show, I tell Hughes that what struck me is how modern those instances of prejudice feel. Disabled people are still prayed over or underestimated, half a millennium on from Henry’s reign. “Absolutely,” he says. “I think this is why being a disabled actor playing this part is so important. Just to know what it’s like to be stared at, to know what it’s like to feel different, or like people are wary of you or don’t know what to do around you. That’s why disabled actors should play disabled characters.” However, he adds, it’s just as important for them to play roles that aren’t focused on disability, to show that disabled people lead all kinds of lives. Shardlake provides exactly this kind of incidental representation, the kind Hughes most values. Disability isn’t ignored or centred, it’s just part of the story. It feels authentic.

The same was true in the play he credits as his big break. “It was the first job where I didn’t immediately go back to those in-between, regular jobs when it finished.” The production, The Solid Life of Sugar Water, was put on by Graeae, a company made up of deaf and disabled actors and crew, and written by Jack Thorne, who was later one of the writers behind Then Barbara Met Alan. The play toured the UK. Its success – and the fact that he found himself surrounded surrounded for the first time by disabled people – changed Hughes’s life.

‘Funny, devastating, weird’ … Hughes and Genevieve Barr in The Solid Life of Sugar Water at the National Theatre in 2016.View image in fullscreen

“It was my first proper play,” he says. “My first two-hander. It was very intense subject matter and intense work for us. We never left the stage. It was an hour and 10 minutes about a couple trying to reconnect sexually after they’ve lost a child quite late in the pregnancy. But it was funny. It was devastating. It was weird.” Hughes and his co-star, Genevieve Barr, were the only two cast members. They are both disabled but the story wasn’t about that. It was about showing disabled people, so often “labelled extraordinary but really just ordinary”, in a situation that was itself both of those things.

That phrasing, the extraordinary ordinariness of disabled life, calls to mind the true story behind Then Barbara Met Alan, in which a disabled couple lead the charge for the UK’s first disability rights law. What was it like to play Alan, a role for which disability is so central to the character’s external and internal lives?

“It was a turning point,” Hughes says. “I’ve never been around so many disabled people or learned so much about our history. So it was huge. I think in the past I’ve hidden my disability. I literally used to put it [my arm] in my pocket, which hurt my back. After this job, I felt prouder. I walked taller. And the best thing was that I got to speak to Alan quite a bit, and eventually meet him. So much of what’s good for my generation of disabled people – our rights, our joys – is because of what Barbara and Alan fought for.”

Hughes with Ruth Madeley in Then Barbara Met Alan.View image in fullscreen

Hughes is delighted by the positive reaction the show received and its success in bringing a largely unknown story to a wide, mainstream audience. “People might remember the Piss on Pity protests in London but they don’t know about the nationwide action, the wheelchair users chaining themselves to buses. And we got to show all that, and the great disabled culture these people were part of.” The whole project, like the resulting show, sounds like a riot of fun and fury.

Where does the adventure lead next? “Hopefully more Shardlake,” he says immediately, grin returning. “But first a few holidays, a few music festivals” – he’s looking forward to Glastonbury – “and in terms of work, I’m waiting to hear about a few things, auditioning, waiting for the phone to ring. Some staring into the abyss.” He laughs, “But the abyss often provides.”

Source: theguardian.com