Shardlake star Arthur Hughes celebrates show's depiction of disability

The star of the new Disney+ drama says disability does not define the character who is 'stoic', 'independent' and 'physically strong'

Watch: Shardlake star Arthur Hughes reflects on the show's depiction of disability

In Disney+'s new series Matthew Shardlake is keen to uncover the truth behind a grisly murder in 16th century England, and as an outsider he is able to slip through society to find the answers he seeks.

The lawyer-turned-sleuth is notable for his intellect, his wit and his determination — and though he is seen as an outsider because of his disability it's not something Shardlake focuses on, he'd rather hone in on the task in front of him.

It's an aspect of the character that disabled actor Arthur Hughes appreciates about the role and the period drama's storytelling, he tells Yahoo UK.

Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, celebrates the series' handling of his character's disability, and explains that the highlight of the series is that it allows viewers to appreciate the lawyer for his skills rather than making his disability the be all and end all of the lawyer: "I think it handles it really well.

"Anthony [Boyle, who plays Jack Barak] was speaking earlier and Anthony said that the least interesting thing about Shardlake is his disability and I completely agree. I think that goes with most disabled people, [it's an] important part of them but not the thing that defines them.

Shardlake (Disney+)
Shardlake stars actor Arthur Hughes as the titular Matthew Shardlake, who shared his appreciation for the way the show approached his character's disability. (Disney+)

"Shardlake's thing that defines him is his brain and his heart, and his care and courage," the actor goes on. "Even before it was being made for this show, the book really addresses that, I think it's great.

"I hope that we made Shardlake — and I think we did — much stronger, less afraid of everything. [He's] afraid of his own shadow a bit in the book. A character that's more stoic and independent, and maybe physically strong as well. I was happy with how Shardlake presented."

Set during the dissolution of the monasteries, the series sees Shardlake be tasked with investigating a murder at a monastery by Thomas Cromwell (Sean Bean) alongside his man Jack Barak (Boyle). The victim was a commissioner sent by Cromwell, who wanted to close down the monastery, and the crime now puts his political career at stake.

It's based on CJ Sansom's Shardlake novels, which Bean has long been familiar with and helped inform his interpretation of Cromwell on the screen. He explains: "I'd read them before, I'd read them a long time ago maybe 15 years ago and I was really blown away by them, and I thought 'that's just my cup of tea. I love this thing.'

Shardlake (Disney+)
Arthur Hughes, who has radial dysplasia, appreciated how in the series 'the least interesting thing about Shardlake is his disability', adding: 'I think that goes with most disabled people.' (Disney+)

"So when it came up, I was delighted that they asked me to play Cromwell, and knowing that I'd really enjoyed the books and I couldn't wait for the next one — there wasn't that many at the time but I believe there is now — and he's a great writer, so it was a great adaptation."

While the actor does not appear often in the series, Bean shares that what he enjoyed most about the show was its writing and how it approached the time period: "He doesn't play a major role, but I think what he does say, it gives you an insight into what's happening in terms of the Church and the monasteries, and this massive break from Rome, from the Catholic Church.

Shardlake (Disney+)
Shardlake is based on CJ Sansom's novels, which Sean Bean has long been familiar with and used for his depiction of Thomas Cromwell, who tasks Shardlake to investigate a murder at a monastery. (Disney+)

"I just found it really enjoyable doing the scenes with these guys and just the relationship we had, and the humour, and the authority that I had over them knowing that [Shardlake] is very gifted and very clever, not sure about [Barak], and I think we just played it there on the day and that worked very well."

Boyle, for his part, enjoyed playing a character with questionable morals, saying that Barak is "out there with his own moral compass" as he reflects: "He's just trying to figure out what's best, I think Shardlake knows what's right and is saying 'this is the through, and this is what we have to do', and Jack is just making it up as he goes along.

"He's doing it on the fly, so it does make sense that you as an audience member going: 'Do I trust this guy?' I don't know if he trusts himself, he's very emotional, he reacts to things and without giving too much away he presses the red button if it's in front of him, you know? He's quick to a sword, or quick to kiss someone. He leads with his heart on his sleeve whereas Shardlake leads more with his head."

Shardlake (Disney+)
Anthony Boyle plays Jack Barak, Thomas Cromwell's man who begrudgingly joins forces with Matthew Shardlake, who the actor describes as being 'quick to a sword'. (Disney+)

The heart of the story is with Shardlake and Barak, two opposing personas who grow a begrudging bond over the course of their investigation. Hughes and Boyle didn't have the same issue as their characters in getting close, the actors reveal, because they've long been admirers of each others' work.

"Anthony and I, we missed each other but we both trained at the same drama school, but not at the same time," Hughes shares. "And then [he] came to see me in a play a few years after I graduated, and so we met for the first time there — that was kind of it, but we knew who [the] other [was].

"I was watching Anthony's work and career as it went along and so when I found out that he was the guy playing Barak I was thrilled because I think it was just perfect, spot on, and I think the first day we met in the hotel, it was it was a great... instant spark."

Hughes went on: "I think we really needed that for this undertone of love and friendship between Barak and Shardlake because even though they are quite the odd couple, there is a really deep, great friendship and we had such a laugh."

Shardlake (Disney+)
Arthur Hughes and Anthony Boyle loved working together, saying: 'I think the first day we met in the hotel, it was it was a great... instant spark.' (Disney+)

Boyle jokes that the first day they met they "had a chicken paprikash and a whiskey, and we put the world to rights", adding: "We're gonna do three months with each other, and I thought we're gonna be alright, he's a good guy here.

"And when I saw him in that play years ago I was just bowled over by how talented he was, and I said to the writer, Jack Thorne, 'I would love to work with him one day' so when it came through and they said Arthur Hughes was attached to it I was like, 'this is a no brainer, I'd love to work this guy.'"

The pair hope that they'll be able to reunite again soon, so fun was their time together making Shardlake, and with six more books left in the series it seems perfectly possible that they will be able to work together again, with each other and Bean.

"There's a bigger world to explore for these three," Hughes remarks. "So I'd love to." Boyle concurs, adding: "If there's an appetite for it yeah, I think we'd all love to do it."

Shardlake premieres on Disney+ on Wednesday, 1 May.