For 30 years, actress Kate Mulvany has been forced to hide the scars of a severe childhood illness. Now she has been cast in a role that allows her to celebrate them in a way she never has before.

When the remains of King Richard III were unearthed in a Leicester car park in 2013, thermal imaging revealed the true state of the king’s deformed spine. Scoliosis had left him with an ungainly gait that would come to define him, and for which he would be mercilessly ridiculed.

For Mulvany, the X-ray was all too familiar. Mulvany was three years old when she was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumour, a cancer of the kidneys that was a result of her father’s exposure to Agent Orange in the Vietnam War.

For seven years Mulvany underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy, irreparably damaging a number of her organs and eroding ribs and parts of her spine. To know Mulvany is to know a whip-smart, funny and endlessly optimistic woman but one who silently suffers ongoing pain as she constantly corrects the crooked spine and posture the cancer left behind.

When she was cast as the titular character in Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3 it was something of a relief to embrace her natural form.

“Ironically I’m in less pain playing Richard because I’m following my own natural state. I get more pain from trying to stay straight,” Mulvany says during a break from rehearsal. “My spine kicks to the left, meaning my pelvis drops and falls out and one leg is shorter than the other. When I tried to find Richard’s physicality, I thought, ‘Why not make the most of my disability?’ So I’m breaking all my doctor’s rules and going back to my naturally unnatural wonky state.”

For Mulvany, to know Richard III’s ailment is to know his incredible pain. But that’s where the similarities end. The namesake of Shakespeare’s 1592 play is a cruel, sharply humorous, strangely attractive, power-hungry king ruling a world in decline.

When Richard 3 director Peter Evans was casting for the play he recognised he needed the best actor for the role. That person was Mulvany, who just happened to be a woman.

Why cast a woman? “Why not?” demands Mulvany, who appeared in the stage adaptation for the literary novel Jasper Jones, Masquerade and The Literati among others. “I think Australian audiences are more than ready to see a female Richard.”

There are other compelling reasons, too. “Richard is judged for his body, horribly,” Mulvany says. “He’s called names, he’s thought of as not worthy of his place in terms of the hierarchy of family. Everything about him is judged on a much stronger level than his male counterparts so I think it’s entirely fitting for a woman to be playing Richard.”

For set and costume designer Anna Cordingley, dressing a woman in a man’s role proved an interesting challenge. Bare in mind this is not a drag role, simply an actress playing a man.

“The gender is somehow liminal because I’m still costuming Kate. It kicks out under the breast, for example, because it’s a female body, so it’s a female suit,” says Cordingley. The result is a stylish, tailored three-piece “black as black” suit, while the other nine costumes in this glamorous, contemporary world are designed with a similar elegance; the set is one of dilapidated opulence.

This is the fourth Bell Shakespeare production Mulvany and Cordingley have done together, giving Cordingley an innate understanding of Mulvany’s physicality. “The pattern makers and cutters have always been thrilled with the outcome, because it’s a challenge cutting asymmetrically and Kate always looks amazing,” says Cordingley, referencing Mulvany’s Cassius costume from Julius Caesar as her favourite.

For Mulvany, the partnership is crucial to her taking that extra step. “I don’t know in my heart of hearts if I would have the Richard I do if I didn’t have Anna, because I trust completely getting my clothes off in front of her and saying, ‘What do you think?’ She’s so compassionate and excited by difference, she doesn’t see that I have one side of my body very different to the other.”

It is worth pointing out playing Richard is huge fun for Mulvany, who finds Richard III one of the most accessible Shakespeare works, written early in his career when he was still a jobbing actor.

“It’s actually very bawdy, the kind of play where the lead speaks directly to you. Not in a Hamlet style but in a ‘do you want to come and fuck shit up’ kind of way. And he’s very funny. There’s an audacity to him that is so compelling. He’s our Hannibal Lecter, Francis Underwood or Walter White. Any intimidation about the text quickly goes and you go on this great ride that’s very, very fun until suddenly it isn’t. And then you realise you’re in deep, deep tragedy and horror.”

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3 runs at the Sydney Opera House March 1–April 1 before touring Canberra and Melbourne.