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Mat Fraser: 'Theatres who don't employ disabled people should be ashamed'

As he steps into the shoes of Shakespeare's evil king, actor Mat Fraser talks jamming with Coldplay, disabled theatre and performing "Spasticus Autisticus" for the Queen


Mat Fraser first started performing as a punk musician before embarking on a career as an actor. His performance work has spanned over twenty years and includes TV appearances on Channel Four's Cast Offs, and American Horror Story: Freak Show. He has worked presenting documentaries and podcasts for the BBC and Channel Four and his extensive onstage work includes close collaborations with disability-led theatre company Graeae – including Reasons to be Cheerful - and Improbable, with whom he created an adult retelling of Beauty and the Beast made with his wife Julie Atlas Muz in 2013. Now, he is about to play Richard III in Northern Broadsides' production as part of Hull 2017.

Had you always wanted to be an actor?

Absolutely. My mum is an actor and when you see your parents onstage it's often what you want to do. But I had a horrible audition when I was 13 for the school play and Carol Ann Proctor, who I really fancied at the time, was with her mate giggling about something. It was probably something about the band Slade, but as far as I was concerned, she was laughing at the very notion that I, as a disabled person, could be onstage. I was a little over sensitive when I was young and as a result I was deterred from acting completely.

So you became a musician instead?

Yes, punk and drumming was a revelation to me because it meant I could be onstage, at least. But then I saw Ubu Roi by Graeae Theatre Company. I had never seen disability theatre before and it blew me away. I had suffered from the affliction of thinking disability theatre would be embarrassing, I can't believe it now. I realised I had been completely wrong and it rekindled my desire to be an actor.

Mat Fraser in rehearsals for Richard III
© Nobby Clark

So that production persuaded you to try your hand at acting?

When I saw the ribald production, with everyone spitting cake at each other, it really flew in the face of any kind of sensibility around disability. I was so elated. I looked around and all the audience – 98 per cent of whom were able-bodied – were just having a whale of a time. At that point I had to leave my band and become an actor. I spent the rest of that year engaging in that change. I forced my way into a general audition with Graeae, I've been an actor since 1994.

You're starring as Richard III, is it a role you've always wanted to take on?

It was a role I always thought I would like to have a go at, or see a disabled person have a go at, and rid it of many of the more clichéd tropes of physical portrayal of impairment – the hump, for example. I'm very much looking forward to doing Shakespeare's Richard III, not the newly discovered one under the car park in Leicester. We're doing the classic villain, with classic lines – "thou foul lump of deformity", you know, I am tickled to be playing it and beside myself with responsibility and honour that I've got the mother of all evil roles.

Do you think the fact that you, as a disabled actor, have been given the role is indicative of change in the industry?

Disabled actors – even ones like myself who are reasonably experienced – just don't get offered lead roles. On stage I think there is change, but on screen – I don't even want to talk about screen. But Ramps on the Moon has seen five big repertory theatres in the country have pledged to do at least one in-house production a year where 50 per cent of the actors are disabled. So that's a commitment, but gosh, when I was 25 I thought everything would be great by the time I was 35 and now I'm 55 and it's pretty much the same.

How is Northern Broadsides staging it?

I have not been fitted with doublet and hose, thankfully. Director Barrie Rutter is fantastic, because I do tire of the flowery over indulgent way that Shakespeare is often performed. Northern Broadsides is well known for its no-nonsense approach to the plays and that's very much after my own heart, so I'm having an absolute ball.

You haven't done Shakespeare for ten years, is it hard to get back into it?

Not especially, it's harder than modern language. But Shakespeare's a bugger for starting off a subject in a sentence and then doing nine lines on something else and then coming back to the original subject all within one sentence, with lots of semi colons and colons. I find it's easier to learn lines when you understand them completely so a lot of my preparatory work was on that.

You had a big role in the Paralympics ceremonies, was that a mad time?

I have been around the block a few times, but suddenly to be playing Ian Dury's "Spasticus Autisticus" – originally banned by the BBC because of bad taste – for the Queen and 25,000 people, was pretty special. Then to get a call from Chris Martin, who happened to see it, and was like: "We're doing the closing ceremony, saw you drumming, I wondered if you wanted to jam on a song". I had played to about 5,000 at the top of my drumming career but nothing like this. I was so excited that when we were done I ran straight out of the auditorium and bashed into Stephen Hawking. It was an amazing time which heralded the most ridiculously amazing three years of opportunity for me.

Graeae has done a lot for the industry when it comes to making opportunities for disabled actors…

It has been phenomenal, especially at the educational level, and the co-production level. But why should Graeae have the responsibility? Every single theatre in Britain should be able to answer yes to the question: Have you employed one disabled actor in the last year? If the answer to that question is no, then the theatre should hang its head in shame and know that it is a relic of the past.

Richard III runs at Hull Truck Theatre from 10 May to 3 June, with previews from now, and the Viaduct Theatre in Halifax from the 30 May to 3 June.