Australian actor Daniel Monks has realised a dream of playing both Joseph Merrick and Richard III. As Teenage Dick, an adaptation of the Shakespeare play, opens at the Donmar he tells Natasha Tripney about how the play explores the cost of being a disabled person in a very ableist society
As titles go, it’s certainly arresting. Mike Lew’s 2018 play Teenage Dick, receiving its UK premiere at the Donmar Warehouse as part of Michael Longhurst’s inaugural season, is a reworking of Richard III, set in an American high school.
It’s a spiritual sibling of sorts to 1990s teen movies Ten Things I Hate About You and She’s All That, but one that also addresses questions of representation – with a magnificently NSFW title.
“I’m told it’s even worse,” laughs its star Daniel Monks, “if you Google ‘teenage dick play’.”
Australian actor Monks is playing the title role of the young, disabled Richard Gloucester, intent on being elected senior class president at all costs. His Richard “values his intelligence and likes to thrust it in other people’s faces.” He’s ruthless and scheming, but also “a loner and has a lot of self-loathing and internalised ableism.”
To Monks, “the play is about the cost of being a disabled person in a very ableist society.”
Monks is still in the second week of rehearsals for Longhurst’s production when we meet, and though he has a busy day ahead, he’s buoyant and energised – he laughs a lot and speaks with the enthusiasm of someone doing what he loves.
Monks always wanted to be a performer. His mother, the casting director Annie Murtagh-Monks, had also been an actor. When she was seven months pregnant, she performed a show called From Here to Maternity. So, Monks jokes, he made his debut in utero.
Even though his mother gave up performing when he was two, he was familiar with actors and their world. It didn’t seem too unrealistic a goal.
That is until the age of 11, when he became disabled as a result of a spinal cord tumour. As a level-headed 11-year-old, he decided that acting was no longer a feasible career path. “And at the time, it really wasn’t – and even when I eventually started to act it still wasn’t really.”
As he didn’t feel acting was an option open to him anymore, Monks decided to go into filmmaking instead. He studied at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. In 2017, he made his first film Pulse, which drew on his personal experiences. He wrote, edited and starred in it.
Pulse tells the story of a young gay, disabled man in love with his straight best friend, who undergoes a full-body transplant into a beautiful able-bodied woman in order to, he hopes, make his friend fall in love with him. “It was quite personal to me and the lead character was to some extent based on me. I thought even if I can’t have a career as an actor, this is the one opportunity I have to act.”
However, performing in the film only reinforced the fact that he loved acting. He was determined to give it a shot, even though he was familiar enough with the industry to know it wouldn’t be easy. “There’s that old adage about minorities: that in order to get half as far, we have to work twice as hard. And as a disabled person, because the energy it takes me to do anything is double that of my peers, it sometimes feels as if I’m working four times as hard.”
One of the factors that drove him was the thought that, “if I could have any success doing this thing that I love, it would potentially have an impact.” All too often disabled people aren’t “given a platform to tell our stories often or to be part of the telling of our stories”.
Monks was nominated for a 2018 best lead actor Aacta award for Pulse, which opened doors for him. He began to get offers of work in independent theatre, the section of the industry that, in his experience, has proved the most inclusive. “I feel that television and film still have a way to go.”
What was your first professional theatre job?
The Elephant Man.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
My mum. Most of all. But I also love Philip Seymour Hoffman.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Do you have advice for disabled actors?
I would say to disabled actors that I gave up my dream of acting between the ages of 11 and 25 and wish I hadn’t. Even if you’re told the opportunities aren’t out there, your experience and talent are needed and will make for a richer industry and culture. Even though it’s really hard, you need to keep creating.
Matthew Lutton, artistic director of the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, saw him on stage and approached him about starring in a new play about the life of Joseph Merrick, Tom Wright’s The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, which took Merrick’s story and re-told it from his point of view.
Monks had long been fascinated with Merrick because, much like Richard III, he is a very significant figure in disabled history. It was a role he’d always wanted to play, so he was over the moon to have the opportunity. His success in the part led to him being cast in Kip Williams’ production of The Lord of the Flies for Sydney Theatre Company.
Last year Monks moved to London as he felt the UK offered more opportunities for disabled actors. “Australia’s moving in the right direction, but London is ahead.”
He’s elated to be playing Richard in Longhurst’s production, opposite Susan Wokoma and Ruth Madeley, particularly as he’s only ever seen the role performed by able-bodied actors. While performers with disabilities, like Mat Fraser for Northern Broadsides, have played the role in the past, the productions that Monks had seen always seemed remote from how he, as someone with lived experience of disability, felt it should be played.
This brings us to the question of representation. At this point in time, says Monks, “I think it’s really important that only disabled actors play disabled roles.”
The common defence of the casting of able-bodied actors in disabled roles is that acting is pretending and anyone should be able to play anything. Monks does not disagree with this in principle, but it clearly doesn’t hold water when “it’s still white, able-bodied, mostly male actors who get to play most of the roles.”
We’re still at a point, he says, when “not only do disabled people and trans people not get to play everyone and anything, we don’t even get to play ourselves.”
Speaking with increasing passion, he makes it clear why this is important. As a gay disabled teenager, he struggled with his disability and his sexuality, and would “watch queer films by queer filmmakers that would let me feel less alone in my experience”. But while able-bodied actors were getting Oscars for playing disabled roles, these films did not reflect his experience of being disabled. “If anything they made me feel more othered.”
Disabled stories are, he says, “so often not being told authentically or with us included. The disabled community are so often ignored and invisible or spoken for by people who feel they know our needs better than we do.” This, he says, is why “it’s important to reclaim our stories and be given the platform to do so”.
Though there’s increasing awareness of intersectionality, it’s still rare for disabled stories to explore their protagonist’s sexuality. “I’m part of the gay male community, which is an over-sexualised community, and the disabled community, which is a desexualised community.” While making Pulse, he remembers someone saying to him: “The lead character, he’s gay and disabled. I think that’s too many issues.”
Obviously, he clarifies, “as an actor I don’t just want to play gay and/or disabled characters. I don’t want to play roles where my disability is ignored or highlighted but, at the same time, I do think we have a lack of authentic representations of disability and that has repercussions.”
‘Not only do disabled people and trans people not get to play everyone and anything, we don’t even get to play ourselves’
It matters, he says, because if you’re the only person in your family with a disability and “you’re only being told what disability is by people who aren’t disabled, that impacts on your perception of who you are”.
How does his mum feel about him going into her profession? “My mum is so proud. I almost lost my life and that kind of trauma can split a family apart or bond a family together and it really bonded us together. My family are my favourite people in the world. She saved my life as well as giving me life.”
While he hopes Teenage Dick will be entertaining, he also hopes it will challenge audiences to “open their minds and hearts to what it is to be a disabled person in our society, but also to make disabled audiences feel that our lives and our bodies and our voices are valid and deserve to be seen and heard.”
Does he have a dream role? He laughs again. “It’s kind of wild,” he says, “my dream roles were Joseph Merrick and Richard III, so I’m living the dream.”
Training: Australian Film, Television and Radio School
• The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne (2017)
• The Lord of the Flies, Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney (2018)
Agent: Sophie Holden at Curtis Brown
Teenage Dick is at the Donmar Warehouse, London, from December 6 to February 1, 2020. Full details: donmarwarehouse.com