On Playing Historical Figures

Richard III

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that the remains of Richard III have reportedly been found under a parking lot. The character based on him is one of Shakespeare’s most notorious villains.

The Guardian asked some famous if the discovery of the historical Richard will change how he is portrayed on stage?

The consensus seems to be NO. Antony Sher puts it best:

Regardless of the historical portrait that emerges from the discovery, you can’t play Shakespeare’s play any differently from the way it is written. It would be a real shame if you tried to: you’d take away all the fun.

Aside: Sher wrote a book about his journey creating the role of Richard. I read it when I was in university and I think it’s an insightful look into the mind of an actor as he crafts a role.

As actors, we’re often called on to portray characters based on real people. How much research one should do into the real person depends on the intent of the script.

If the intent of the script is to portray a real event in a realistic manner (e.g. Frost/Nixon) then you’ll want to do as much research as possible. Find tapes of the interviews, study everything you can about the character. Learn the character’s mannerisms, voice patterns, etc.

When I did The Flying Bandit, which was based on real people and real events, I did quite a bit of research into the people involved. But I didn’t try to completely mimic the real people. Not that I could, anyway. There was very little information available to us at the time. And the characters in the play were seen through the eyes of a fictional character who saw them in a different light than reality. And it was a one man show, so it was vital to differentiate the characters from one another.

I’ve played George Etherege in The Libertine. He was a real guy (a playwright!) and I think I read a little bit about him, but I focused much more on the text that was there as well as the physicality of the time.

I’ve also played Galileo. Certainly a real guy. The script was a fictional dramatization of some of the major discoveries in his life. None of the events happened the way they happened in the script. We have no idea how they happened. So, the character was based on a combination of the scant source material and the script that Lindsay wrote.

At the end of the day, no matter how much research you do, no matter how “real” the character is, the script itself is always the final arbiter of your character choices. It’s the bible for the production.

About the author

Craig Mason