Teenage Dick is educational Shakespeare, and that’s not just because this particular retelling of Richard III from Mike Lew is set in an American high school.
Framing his rise to power through the lens of disability (both Richard and actor Daniel Monks are hemiplegic), Lew’s play critiques the crowd – from online cancel culture to the ‘hero vs villain’ narrative which plagues discussions around disabled people. At the very start, with a menacing and vengeful performance from Monks, we get the sense that Richard’s seen it all before.
Unsatisfied with marginalisation, he sets his eyes on being crowned Senior Class President, facing competition from smart student Clarissa (Alice Hewkin) and school bully Ed (Callum Adams), and seeking support from friend ‘Buck’ (Years and Years‘ Ruth Madeley). Soundtracked by pop hits from the likes of Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift, Teenage Dick certainly blends in with the wider ‘high-school teen tries to become popular’ genre. It’s Shakespeare meets Heathers, or Mean Girls.
While curious and cheesy with its schoolboy take on the tragedy, the shoehorning in of the Bard’s language in such a contemporary setting feels a bit jarring and tokenistic. Richard’s monologues, rich in language (pun not intended) feel hard to follow in their purest form, and instead work best in an amusing clash of old and new dialogue – the brilliant line “thou art a douchebag” being a fine example.
Sure, Teenage Dick may well bask in a few clichés in its build-up (perhaps intentionally so), but when everything falls into place for Richard – and indeed for us as an audience – the result is rather satisfying. When Richard’s frustration connects with Ed’s ex-girlfriend Anne and her dreamy, closeted personality (tragically performed by Kelly), the result is tender and gentle, especially in the form of a phenomenal dance routine to Cut to the Feeling choreographed by Claira Vaughan. We end up rooting for Richard and his overcoming of adversity.
In any other instance, such a stance would reek of so-called ‘inspiration porn’, but with Teenage Dick, the individual response we have to Richard’s plans is particularly intriguing. The ideas of Machiavelli are often used in discussions around Richard III – his four concepts on power helpfully explained in an English lesson by teacher Miss York (Susan Wokoma), though quickly forgotten about by the end of the play.
The most interesting, however, centres around whether it is better to be feared or loved, with ‘pity culture’ also thrown in for good measure. When the question is applied to the world of disability in Teenage Dick – with positive representation in the form two disabled actors in the cast – it’s clear that the answer is going to be brutally honest, with a lot of lessons to learn.
Teenage Dick is now playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 1 February.
Production Images: Marc Brenner.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch Teenage Dick for free in exchange for a review of the captioned performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this review and all opinions stated are honest and my own.