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> > > Nabil Shaban on Brecht, acting and cripping-up...

Sophie Partridge caught up with Nabil Shaban to pose a few questions to the legendary actor currently playing Judge Azdak in a production of Brecht's 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' playing at the Unicorn Theatre, Southwark.

actor nabil shaban has wild grey hair and beard and wears a gold waistcoat

Nabil Shaban plays Judge Azdak in Brecht's demanding morality play 'Caucasian Chalk Circle' adapted for young people by the Unicorn Theatre

When I phoned Unicorn Theatre to book tickets for Caucasian Chalk Circle with Nabil Shaban playing Judge Azdak, I held in a giggle when `warned' by the box office that the show's running time was presently over 2.5 hours. I have never known Nabil to be in a show running at less – especially a Brecht piece. 

In true Brechtian style, the cast introduced CCC with Nabil at the helm. He then disappeared for the entire first-half, re-appearing finally under a spot-light; we felt the moment had finally come and sat with bated breath for our heroes first lines.. and then a black-out came signalling the interval! Thankfully, Nabil stars throughout the second-half.

How did it feel to be Wheeling the Boards after a bit of a gap? And to be doing Brecht again!? (I first performed with Nabil in Theatre Workshop Edinburgh's production of Threepenny Opera, in 2004.)
“Scary. And terrifying with such an awesome responsibility to do justice to a role that so many people know or have seen. I like Brecht. I like his left-wing politics, his subversion, and he writes such devilishly loveable rogues and morally ambiguous characters for performers to relish.”

I've been told that it's usual for the actor playing Azdak to only play Azdak. How did you feel about not getting to play other characters as the rest of the ensemble did?
“Relieved. Azdak is a big enough part, a huge mountain to climb, without taking on other roles in the first half. Actually, in Brecht's original production, the actor who played Azdak, also played the narrator/ singer. Again, relieved I wasn't asked to do that.”

How do you feel about the whole cripping-up / Eddie Redmayne Oscar thing?
“You mean the Hawking bio-pic? I don't have a moan about that since the Hawking character is portrayed before and after becoming disabled. If I were directing the film I would employ two actors to play Hawking - a non-disabled actor for the era before Hawking became a crip, and a disabled actor for the crip Hawking. But I would cast a non-disabled actor that looked identically or as close as the disabled actor.  It wouldn't matter if they didn't look exactly like .. Stephen Hawking, after all Anthony Hopkins doesn't look a bit like Richard Nixon, nor Meryl Streep like Thatcher. 

Hollywood producers will choose the non-crip option, as they will perceive it as the less complicated. I think the Hawking ‘cripping-up’ controversy is a red herring deliberately set up by the mainstream to make us disabled opponents to cripping-up look extremist, unreasonable and foolish. Did we ever get as much publicity when we objected to Daniel Day-Lewis playing Christy Brown, or Andy Serkis playing Ian Dury? No, because it was such a clear case of it being wrong for cripping up, and the mainstream were fearful of the scathing searchlight being thrown on the issue.  

I am opposed to cripping up, in the same way I would be opposed to male actors playing female roles, which was the rule in Shakespearean England, or white performers ‘blacking up’ as was often the case up to 20 years ago (the last case I know of was Christopher Lee playing a Pakistani in ‘Jinnah’). Today, show business generally disapproves… except of course when it comes to ‘cripping up’.

Disabled actors being perceived as not being `able' to play non-disabled characters in ensemble productions has proved a casting barrier. Is that perception justified?
“I have played many so-called `non-disabled' characters in ensemble and non-ensemble productions, so that hasn't been my experience. However, I think producers, directors and casting directors will find any excuse to not cast disabled performers if they worry about perceived complications or the aesthetic of the production. 
Personally, I'm not keen to play lots of different characters in one production. I prefer as an actor on focusing on one character, but I will do it if there just isn't the budget to employ a larger cast. Sometimes, doubling, trebling, multiple roles can have an artistic justification, which I can accept, such as when I played many roles in ‘The Emperor’ at the Royal Court in 1987, and in ‘Iranian Nights’, again at the Royal Court in 1989.”

Why do you think you tend to get cast in epic productions?! Would you agree this is partly due to the idea of the `wise', iconic disabled figure rather than the reality of `being disabled'?
“Not true, actually. I've done single-handers, two handers, big cast, small cast. I would say most of my roles are not necessarily the so-called `wise' iconic disabled figure. I have played `good', `bad', and `foolish'.  I have also played the reality of `being disabled' - e.g. ‘Crutch’ (1981 + 1983), ‘Jasmine Road’ (2000), ‘The First To Go’ (2008). 

Anyway, I would find it boring to always be `playing the reality of being disabled.’ I have to do that 24/7. The reason most people become actors is to escape their condition, to be someone else, live other lives, other eras, albeit temporarily within the secure environment of the performing space. And disabled actors should have access to the same opportunities as non-disabled actors. 

If non-disabled actors can play historical epics then why shouldn't we? I have no complaints about being cast as Azdak. I have been wanting to play that role since 1978, when I first discovered him at university. The Unicorn artistic director offered me the part because she once worked with me in 1988 at the Royal Court when I played a slightly similar character in the play ‘Downfall’. 

You can imagine how flattered I was to be asked to play this part, especially when I had refused in 1995 to play the role of the Narrator in Simon McBurney's "Caucasian Chalk Circle" at the National Theatre, because I only wanted to play Azdak.”

Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle translated by Frank McGuinness and directed by Amy Leachruns at the Unicorn Theatre, Southwark, London until 21 March. Please click on this link for further details