Tasked with writing a new version of Richard III by actor Gregg Mozgala (of New York company The Apothetae), Mike Lew came up with Teenage Dick. Shying away from presenting his Richard as either “evil” or “sainted” due to his disability alone, Lew’s subject was rather the fraught social dynamics facing disabled people. Rather than have his Richard be vaguely “deformed, unfinish’d” with a non-specific disability in the long tradition of productions of Shakespeare’s play, Mozgala played an adolescent, asshole Richard who had cerebral palsy, like him.
In Michael Longhurst’s production of Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse, Daniel Monks’ iteration of Richard shares his disability (hemiplegia) too, thanks to Lew’s own rewrites. Monks’s performance is a masterful combination of venom and vulnerability. This Richard is convinced of his own superiority, flicking his wrist to dim the lights in an instant and crow “Did you fucking see that?” at each latest feat of manipulation to his audience. And we are very much his audience.
In this high school version of Shakespeare’s story, Richard decides to take on senior elections in order to bring down his nemesis, the casually bullying himbo jock Eddie (Callum Adams). Richard’s pursuit of power leads him to make cruel, casual use of his classmates, such as evangelical try-hard Clarissa (Alice Hewkin). He’s darkly incongruous against Chloe Lamford’s High School Musical-bright set. His well-meaning teacher Ms York’s (Susan Wokoma) assuring him of the school’s sensitivity to anti-bullying is as futile as warning a snake to look out, the rabbit bites.
Make no mistake, Richard is pushed around by Eddie and feels cast out, feared, and pitied by his peers because of his disability, but Lew’s characterisation extends beyond a simple victimhood to let Richard be both more whole and more weird. He speaks like no other character (or teenager); slipping urbanely in and out of Shakespeare-adjacent language as well as twisting lines from his plays indiscriminately. He’s “feeble” to Eddie’s “Phoebus Apollo”. “The fear in your saucer eyes, I could drink it up like a cat,” he promises. He’s a greasy, threatening nerd, but we see him yearn, and be – or seem to be – frank, at times. “This is the very best time of your life,” he shouts at Eddie. Minutes later, he’s fretting about his own high school existence being as good as it gets for himself, something he can’t allow to happen.
Buckingham, here Buck (Ruth Madely), is less a sidekick than a spiritual challenger for Richard. A rare fellow disabled student, Buck’s sunnier outlook on everything grates on something vulnerable in Richard. He uses Buck, but also seems to need to convince her of the need for him to win and for domination more for himself than for her.
Some of the best scenes are between Richard and Anne Margaret (Siena Kelly, playing an amalgamation and remix of two characters from Richard III), a popular, dance-obsessed girl with her own secrets, possibly a key part of Richard’s strategy to election. Before we even see her dance, the easy grace in Kelly’s movements is obvious. She’s a muddled teenager too, kind as well as desperate in her own way, and capable of messing up as she tries to work out how to even talk to someone with a disability. Despite this, she manoeuvres Richard’s body around to work out a way for them to dance together in front of their fellow students so gently, as if measuring him for a suit.
When they do dance, it’s one of the most joyful things I can remember seeing recently, and not just because it’s scored at first by Carly Rae Jepsen. It’s a delight and I grin hard enough to hurt. Disaster follows soon, of course. The last quarter of Teenage Dick feels slightly unenjoyably predictable, unlike its earlier parts, which manages to satisfy even when showing us Richard’s oh-so-smooth taking down of contenders.
It’s all largely witty, pointed and breezily over the top. But the treatment of Anne Margaret, and her final harrowing monologue, plays a bit like trying to have your cake and eat it to me. In a version so changed from Shakespeare’s already, why not deviate even further if the fridging fate you seem to have to write for your character feels so wrong? There’s also an underformed tension over the allocation of the school council’s budget to either football or the arts – or more specifically to the school play, as Ms York hopes.
That dance, though, and Monks’ wonderful performance – which makes me want to break out the word bravura, who am I – makes me shrug a little at these reservations. Too bad. You try feeling reserved when you’re grinning like that.
Teenage Dick is on at Donmar Warehouse until 1st February 2020. More info and tickets here.