AS the poster pronounces, expect intrigue, conspiracy and a thrilling night out when York Theatre Royal’s 120-strong community cast stages Sovereign on location at King’s Manor, Exhibition Square, York.
Leading the company in this open-air world premiere of York playwright Mike Kenny’s adaptation of C J Sansom’s Tudor-set thriller will be Irish actor and stage combat fighter Fergus Rattigan.
From July 15 to 30, Fergus plays disabled lawyer Matthew Shardlake, working in tandem with assistant Jack Barak (fellow professional Sam Thorpe-Spinks, late of the University of York). This “detective” duo is in York awaiting the arrival of Henry VIII, only to be plunged into a murder mystery that could threaten the future of the crown.
“I’m a Plantagenet/Tudor nut, right through to this period, and I’ve worked at Shakespeare’s Globe on occasion,” says Fergus. “When I came to York in the summer of 2021, when the Covid restrictions were softened and we were allowed to travel, I did a Viking tour, visited the Minster and walked the City Walls, reciting bits of Richard III. My partner is a historian, by the way.”
The role of Shardlake is made for Fergus. “I read the script and thought, ‘well, yes, I know this world, I know these characters, I know what’s happening, and even the way the character is described as a ‘hedgehog’ and ‘brothel spider’: one of those insults that echoes Shakespeare’s hunchbacked Richard III – and I’ve played Richard III on Zoom for the company Shake-Scene Shakespeare.
“I’ve also directed bits of Richard III for the Dublin Shakespeare Festival in the Tudor crypt at Christ Church Cathedral, when we did scenes all around the city.”
Fergus’s agent informed him of the York Theatre Royal production. “The minute I learned about it, I was, ‘yes, yes, I’m very interested’!” he recalls. “I was auditioned by Juliet Forster and co-director John R Wilkinson on Zoom and then I came for an interview with all three co-directors [Mingyu Lin is the third] to see if I would be comfortable working with a community cast and whether I’d be comfortable with my disability being portrayed on stage.”
The answer was an emphatic “yes”. He cherished both the “juicy role” role and the performing opportunity. “Not only do I love and study the Tudor period but Shardlake has my mindset. He’s a bit of an outsider, which is something I can relate to both as a disabled person in a world not designed for disabled people but as a foreigner from another country. I’m very used to that outsider nature.
“I see myself very much reflected in him. When he’s in front of the King, there’s a moment of embarrassment. 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, things like that. Or have judged me when I turned up for a job and I’m half the size they thought I was going to be.
“Shardlake’s 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.”
Fergus’s condition is dwarfism, or dwarf syndrome, to quote the medical term. He notes how pantomime productions are increasingly not using dwarf actors, some preferring puppets, for Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
“I’ve worked with a group of seven actors for some time in Snow White. We were at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh last Christmas and I’ll be working with the same company next Christmas. But you see some theatres not doing that now – and it’s not the dwarf actors being asked about it. It’s people being offended on our behalf – and now on the poster it’ll still say ‘The Seven Dwarfs’ but in the script it’ll say ‘The Magnificent Seven’.
“I’d say the term ‘dwarf’ is fine. Everyone knows what you mean. There’s no confusion. There’s nothing derogatory about it. People think they are generic characters but it’s just more clear than it is for other characters that it’s our characteristic.”
Fergus had not read C J Sansom’s novels before Shardlake came his way. “But I don’t know how I hadn’t because I’ve read historical novels and fictional stories of the period, especially by Philippa Gregory, who happens to live in Yorkshire,” he says.
Before auditions began, he read Sansom’s source novel, first quickly, then more thoroughly to add Post-It notes. “You can tell he has researched the period thoroughly, and likewise Mike Kenny’s script refers loyally to the book,” says Fergus.
What stirred his interest in such novels and works of fiction? “It’s a weird thing. I got into Shakespeare very early on, but in Ireland we don’t have the focus on history the way you do over here, particularly not studying the War of the Roses,” says Fergus.
“So, I didn’t know what people were referring to when I came over here. I thought, ‘I must read about it’, and then I started to read historical novels and fictional works .”
Now he is at the centre of one such story, Sovereign. “It’s fiction and conspiracy on top of history, where Shardlake gets to step in as the Poirot of his period. He just tends to be in the right place – or the wrong place! – at the right or wrong time, depending on how you look at this little ‘hedgehog’ man,” says Fergus.
“There’s pressure to get the performance right, but you can also make it your own. You’re not trying to find your unique slant on Hamlet but to find the character, seeing how big or small to make his character, how proud he is as a proper lawyer or ashamed of his disabilities.
“For me, acting is about reacting to those around me and responding to that – and this time it’s a cast of 120.”
York Theatre Royal presents Sovereign outdoors at King’s Manor, York, July 15 to 30. Tickets update: SOLD OUT. Box office for returns only: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk
Copyright of The Press, York