Reviewed – 14th December 2019
“Shrewdly directed by Michael Longhurst it is in equal measure clever, insightful, cruel and incisive”
“Teenage Dick” relocates ‘Richard III’ to an American High School, thus securing its place in the growing group of plays and films that have taken Shakespeare’s works four hundred years into the future, transposing the heroes and villains into modern teenagers. In writer Mike Lew’s assured hands, the translation works exceedingly well, though possibly this is mainly down to the excellent casting; particularly Daniel Monks who cuts a compelling figure as ‘Dick’ (Richard Gloucester). It is a multi-layered performance which not only matches the colourful cleverness of Lew’s script, but often surpasses it.
It centres on Richard’s plot to become president of his senior class at Roseland Junior High. Unpopular and disabled, he openly acknowledges his distorted physicality but then uses it to partly account for his crooked mind. We are on more tricky and dangerous ground than in Shakespeare’s day, but Monks depicts this internal conflict with intelligence and wit. Much has been made of Lew’s insistence that the lead characters be played by disabled actors, but one should be wary of the significance of this. Monks has hemiplegia but it doesn’t necessarily inform his depiction of the character’s darker side. There are more profound issues at stake that drag one down to the depths of villainy that his character descends into?
Monks’ performance is exceptional as he tackles the knotted weeds of self-loathing and raging ambition. Ruth Madeley, who is in a wheelchair, is also terrific as his best friend ‘Buck’ Buckingham, a kind of virtuous flipside to Dick’s burgeoning evil. With equally strong support from Siena Kelly as Anne Margaret, Susan Wokoma as Elizabeth York, Alice Hewkin as Clarissa Duke and Callum Adams as ‘Eddie’ the parallels with Shakespeare’s text apparent and quite ingeniously toyed with. The dialogue is sharp and cuttingly funny and works best in tongue-lashing mode when the actors fire their invective at each other rather than aim for sometimes long-winded introspection.
The central themes are occasionally drummed home. How much is Richard’s disability the cause of the ugliness of his actions? Shakespeare went further than this interest in just the physical, and to some extent Lew does too with his references to Machiavelli and the four pathways to power. Is it better to be loved or feared? But the mix doesn’t quite work here. Society’s fear of disability is different from Machiavelli’s conceived fear of an oppressor. It is a complex matter and one that needs more than a couple of hours of stage time to explore; particularly if you still want to entertain the audience.
If you play down the over analysis of the intentions, “Teenage Dick” is a quite stunning modern-day interpretation of Shakespeare’s villainous Richard of Gloucester. Shrewdly directed by Michael Longhurst it is in equal measure clever, insightful, cruel and incisive, with performances that do clearly entertain as much as they provoke debate.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Marc Brenner
Donmar Warehouse until 1st February
Previously reviewed at this venue: