Instead of staging Richard III as a vehicle for some able-bodied actor to show off how great they are by playing the “deformed, unfinish’d” king, American playwright Mike Lew was challenged to write a new version of the play. His version is set in an American high school and makes disability the focus. Not just disability, but perceptions of disabled people, and the roles they get to play both as actors and in society more widely.
The resulting play, Teenage Dick, which premiered in the US last year, is a sharp bit of writing, referencing both Shakespeare and Clueless, both a raucous retelling of Richard III and provocative play that advances the narratives about disability.
Michael Longhurst’s production captures all the agonies of school life, intensified by the scrutiny of social media.
Chloe Lamford’s set stunningly consumes the whole Donmar Warehouse space. Richard’s royal court is now a basketball court. There’s also a big mirror along the back wall: take a look at yourself, your expectations, your prejudices, it seems to say.
In his opening soliloquy, Richard (Daniel Monks) – Dick to his enemies, obviously – tells us he’s running for class president, and he’s determined to win. Not through being liked and accepted; after all the bullying and rejection it’s too late for that. But through being feared. First, he has to beat dumb quarterback Eddie and devoutly religious Clarissa (“you can’t split the freak vote”).
From there, Lew has great fun mapping his characters and story on to Shakespeare’s play. It’s not remotely faithful, but instead keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek. There’s a wonderful moment when Susan Wokoma’s wonderfully harried teacher Miss York – a comic highlight – admits hilariously to the audience how laboured the comparisons are.
The tone, however, is all over the place, lurching from silliness to dark comedy to full-on teen soap; each genre is done brilliantly on its own terms but it doesn’t cohere as a whole.
Take the most interesting aspect: Richard is actually a dick. He makes his own cruel choices, fully informed, with horrific consequences. Then suddenly, in intimate scenes with love interest Anne Margaret, played tenderly by Siena Kelly, it feels as though we’re in a completely different play. The comedy evaporates. Everything becomes sincere, with candid conversations about aspirations, about fame, about sex, as well as deep and moving discussions about the different abilities of different bodies. The writing is fantastic and the performances are wonderful, but it’s a polar shift in tone.
Monks is on equally good form when the tone is light as when it’s dark. His affected villainy at the beginning is well pitched, and there are flashes when he explodes into nastiness, face screwed up and screaming. It’s a riveting performance; it’s a pleasure to watch him adapt to all the gear changes in this slightly jumbled production.