Shakespeare’s Richard III reset in a contemporary American high school is both a ludicrous idea and one that instantly makes perfect sense. Mike Lew’s reboot of the story of England’s last Plantagenet king – which premiered at New York’s Public Theater in 2018 and now makes it UK debut with an all-new cast in a production by Michael Longhurst – fully grasps the hierarchical cruelties of the school setting and how they function as a parallel for political blood sport. It’s also, simply put, a huge amount of fun – and a self-conscious homage to the all-time greats of the teen movie genre, such as 10 Things I Hate About You (itself a riff on The Taming of the Shrew) or the delightfully gory Drop Dead Gorgeous. Lew even throws in a direct reference to the pinnacle of 90s teen comedies: Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.
Richard Gloucester (Daniel Monks) is a disabled student at the bottom of the social pile. He’s bullied by the jocks and ostracised by prissy popular kids. His only friend is Barbara ‘Buck’ Buckingham (Ruth Madeley), a wheelchair user who shares none of Richard’s bitterness. Spurred on by an advantageously timed English lesson on Machiavelli’s The Prince, Richard starts planning to replace the all-American class president, Eddy Ivy (Callum Adams). His route to the top involves scoring a date with Eddy’s ex-girlfriend, the impeccably gorgeous Anne Margaret (Siena Kelly), a senior who is training to become a professional dancer. Their awkward sort-of coupledom leads to one of the play’s best scenes, a stonking synchronised dance routine in the high school gym.
Lew gleefully layers in the references to Shakespeare’s original. Richard is prone to slipping into semi-ridiculous monologues, which the fantastically watchable Monks delivers with intermittent iambic pentameter cadence and a nod to the hammy portrayals of Shakespearean villains that have littered the stage over the years. It’s not a flat-out perfect work. Sometimes it seems like a larger play, or indeed film, haphazardly condensed to function in a medium-sized theatre without too many major scene changes. And Longhurst’s staging is a little too static at times, though it does make use of a superbly judged soundtrack, featuring Taylor Swift, Weezer and Daft Punk, and there’s a wonderful image created during the opening moment when Richard, wearing a backpack, bends over and projects a gnarled shadow onto the wall, his bag artificially recreating the king’s famous crooked back.
By far the most interesting thing about Lew’s creation, however, is how it interrogates disability. The play was originally commissioned by The Apothetae, an American company dedicated to staging work that deals in some way with the experiences of disabled people. The script explicitly states that disabled actors must be cast to play Richard and Buck, and was initially written with the knowledge Gregg Mozgala, an actor with cerebral palsy and the founder of The Apothetae, would perform the lead role in New York. For the London run, it has been adapted to fit the fact Monks has hemiplegia.
Richard III has a long history of being played by able-bodied actors “cripping up” with varying degrees of offensiveness. Shakespeare’s imagining of the king as a “bunch-backed toad” has left us with a centuries-old image of the “evil hunchback”. Interestingly, when the king’s skeleton was disinterred from the ignominious car park in Leicester, it showed the real king did have scoliosis that probably caused uneven shoulder height, but not the deformity Shakespeare described.
Lew, however, does something far more interesting and clever than simply correct historical inaccuracy, or avoid an unpalatable performance, by not showing the character as a hunchback. Instead, he centres Richard’s disability in the story. It becomes the root cause of his social exclusion, his deep unhappiness and his mad clamber for power at any cost. Richard also uses the assumptions and belittlements – well-intentioned or otherwise – of the surrounding characters to his advantage: like securing a date with Anne Margaret by playing on her desire to “be a good person” by taking the disabled kid to the school dance.
But what Lew doesn’t do is make Richard’s disability and the treatment he receives for it a straightforward excuse for how he behaves. Monks is still, at the heart of this, playing the role of Richard III, a legendarily baddie. Having a disabled actor play the scheming lead villain rather than, say, a sweet-natured periphery character who is the object of pity or someone else’s burden, is one facet of Lew’s very nuanced examination of our assumptions about disabled characters and performers.
The final speech crystallises the degree to which Teenage Dick isn’t just about Richard III or high schools, but a gently pitched meta-commentary on disability on stage, and off. After deciding to carry out a final terrible deed, despite an almost-contemplative moment of halting, Richard is asked why he did it. His response: when the role of an evil anti-hero is the only one that’s been written for someone with a body like yours, what choice do you have but to fulfil it?