Yesterday was my first theatre trip of 2020, and it set a pretty high bar for the coming year. Richard III has long been my favourite Shakespeare play, though it’s become increasingly problematic to stage in recent years. Disability rights activists have – justifiably – protested at able-bodied actors being cast in disabled roles when there already few enough opportunities for disabled actors, and addressed the deeply flawed logic at the core of the piece: the prejudice that appearance dictates character, and visible disability or disfigurement being portrayed as an outward signifier of inner evil. (Critic Rosemary Waugh talks interestingly about this – in relation to both Richard III and Teenage Dick – in this Exeunt piece.) So that leaves a conundrum: do you erase or minimise Richard’s disability (there are plenty of less troublesome reasons he should be ‘othered’ in his brother’s court, from his slightness in comparison to his strapping, golden giant of a sibling to his preference for the martial over marital arts)? But in doing so, do you just further shut disabled people out of the opportunity to play one of Shakespeare’s meatiest roles? Or do you address it openly and thoughtfully?
Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick takes the latter approach. It’s a play I have been obsessed with seeing since it premiered in the States, so when I heard it was coming to the Donmar, I booked up tickets as fast as I could, though work commitments meant it was January before I could make the trip south. And I have to say it didn’t disappoint me.
Taking his cue from everything from Gossip Girl to John Hughes teen movies and all stops inbetween, Lew updates a royal Shakespearean struggle to a high school presidential election. It’s not a particularly groundbreaking idea – movies from Clueless to Ten Things I Hate About You have shown how to relocate a classic text in a contemporary school setting, and the former gets a shout out – but it’s done remarkably well. Anchored by a towering performance by Daniel Monks that beautifully captures the intellect, swagger and contradictions of the role, Michael Longhurst’s production gives us a Richard for the incel age. Even his language – cleverly structured to reference the original text – reflects the creepy ‘milady’ stylings of online MRA forums, and his toxicity is such that even when he gets the girl, he’s scornful and destructive towards the very thing he professes to want so much. Any woman who has spent more than 10 minutes on the internet will be sadly familiar with the type.
In the original, Richard embarks on a campaign of evil, alienated by the court of his brother Edward, the king; a plot that sees him seduce, marry and ultimately discard Anne, the widow of a man he has killed. Sharply scripted and packed with witty touches – and including one of the most unexpected but invigorating dance sequences I’ve seen in a long time – the play recentres the story so that it is in part about his rivalry with Eddie (here a high school jock, played by Callum Adams with the energy of an early-days-being-an-onscreen-dick-phase Chris Evans) but also about his relationship with Anne, Eddie’s ex – a dancer who turns out to be as dissatisfied with her lot as Richard himself, though for very different reasons.
(Monks is himself disabled and eloquent on the need for better representation – read Natasha Tripney’s fascinating interview with him here)
Monks’ compelling, nuanced turn and an empathic performance by Siena Kelly as Anne – and the genuine chemistry between the pair – turn this, then, into a very different beast. Whereas it’s rare to see a production of Richard III that has Anne as little more than a quickly disposed of plot point, here their relationship actually has time to grow and blossom. The sly delight of most Richard III productions is, at least initially, you actually want Richard to get away with it – he’s Loki, a trickster sent to prick the pomposity of a corrupt and bloated court, and his victims mostly deserve their fate (it’s only when he attacks the innocent – Edward’s young sons, though depending on the production they can often be so bratty you’re glad to see the back of them – that he loses both the audience’s sympathy and his own conviction and confidence.) Here, instead, you don’t want Richard to succeed: you want him to change, to see that redemption could be his if he wasn’t only so soured against it. It’s a startling but incredibly effective difference.
I also liked that, while Anne’s unhappy fate is sealed by the parameters of the original plot, it’s not one she meekly accepts: there’s a fourth-wall breaking interlude that acknowledges that if this were Anne’s story, or if indeed a woman was writing it, her end would be very different. Also, putting Buckingham in a wheelchair (a pleasingly spiky performance by Ruth Madeley) also means that the piece avoids Richard being the only authority on disability – even as their peers so often thoughtlessly lump them together, they have different, and often conflicting, ideas on how to negotiate the world.
It’s not a perfect production (what is?), though my doubts didn’t dent my enjoyment. It’s always good to see a diverse cast on stage, but I didn’t feel the race-blind casting always worked in its contemporary setting. While it’s increasingly common (and internally uncommented on) in the context of traditional Shakespeare plays to cast actors of any race for almost any role (witness Adrian Lester’s Henry V, or Vinette Robinson’s Ophelia), it felt odd to be unacknowledged in a play set in the here and now, in a context where it’s hard to believe race wouldn’t have an impact. Richard’s disability doesn’t negate his white privilege – something it feels he would have been called out on more in a play that wasn’t based on a classic. And surely Anne, as a teenage Black girl, would have faced plenty of discrimination, particularly in relation to her secret abortion (there’s a lot of toxic discourse about Black women and abortions, particularly in the States), while making Clarissa the Type A Tracy-Flick-alike an Asian actress (Alice Hewkin) seems to feed into lazy stereotypes about overachieving / over-ambitious Asians. (Then again, as a white woman, I do recognise that it’s not really my opinion on this that matters.)
But overall, this was one of the best adaptations of Richard III I’ve seen – and I’ve seen a lot. More than that, even if you aren’t overly familiar with the source material, it has plenty of casual pleasures to offer (seriously: that dance routine!). It’s only on till Feb so try and get yourself a ticket. (Just don’t, I beg of you, Google the title.)