It’s a case of rather ironic programming that the press night for Mike Lew‘s Teenage Dick at The Donmar Warehouse was on the 12 December, the day of the General Election in the UK. An adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Lew’s new play is a meditation on the nature of power transposed to an American high school. Commissioned by The Apothetae, a theatre company dedicated to plays that discuss disability, and with direction by Michael Longhurst, Lew retells Shakespeare with a needed urgency, providing an arch reminder that the voices of the disabled have often been ignored, terrorised or shouted down from the earliest possibility.
We’ve all been teenagers battling the irregularities and unpredictabilities of secondary school, but for Richard ‘Dick’ Gloucester (Daniel Monks), his “winter of discontent” began at birth: he has been bullied for his disability for years, with the popular Eddie (Callum Adams) a particularly virulent opponent. However, with the chance of becoming president of the senior class comes the opportunity to seek vengeance on those who have looked down on him, and so begins Richard’s scheme of school-wide domination.
Aside from Chloe Lamford‘s school gymnasium set, there’s little High School Musical or Bring It On in this production. Sinéad McKenna’s lighting and Andrezej Goulding’s video design are very good in creating an overwhelming social media bubble that occupies the students.
Lew’s writing neatly blends Shakespearean rhetoric with everyday speech, slowly revealing Richard’s personality through the interactions with his peers. Of the six roles, two are played by disabled actors (the other is Ruth Madeley as Richard’s friend, Barbara Buckingham). It is mostly when others make fun of their disabilities that such is brought to the forefront, thereby emphasising the central, revelatory nature of the play. The work is, overall, sharp and, if at points difficult to watch, highly enjoyable.
Various characters often observe Richard’s archaic method of speaking, but it is Daniel Monks who delivers such lines with wit and a knowing smile that makes this seem almost natural. A Machiavelli-reading, Shakespeare-speaking ventriloquist, Richard leads the audience through the play with candour, maintaining a façade that makes it impossible to decipher whether or not he is being genuine. It’s a stunning performance that’s laced with emotion, bathos and pathos, and it can only be hoped that it won’t be too long until we see Monks leading another cast soon.
Madeley as Barbara provides a dry humour. The sub-plot involving Dick’s girlfriend Anne Margaret (Siena Kelly) is also handled superbly, her soliloquy emphasising that Shakespeare has long been spoken for and by the few, not the many. Kelly brings great warmth to the play and her dance with Richard, choreographed by Claira Vaughan, is a stand-out moment of the show.
Some scenes, such as the town-hall style debate, are over-long, and the cast feels rather small. Why there’s no principal especially is bizarre, especially given both the often-explosive repercussions of the events on stage and the apparent ineptitude of English teacher Elizabeth York (Susan Wokoma).
Yet if at points the play feels unwieldly, then it may be a projection of Richard’s own mind, which revels in both the nastiness and necessity of his actions. Lew’s play is often brutal in its depiction of society’s treatment of those who are disabled, but through Monks’ performance it is clear that, to use his own words, he is “someone not to be f*ck-ed with”. More plays of this calibre, telling the stories they do, are very much needed and welcome to explore our own ingloriousness.
Photograph credit: Marc Brenner.