Reworking Shakespeare’s Richard III into American High School territory, Teenage Dick feels like a mash-up – take Netflix’s The Politician, mix in the social media of Dear Evan Hansen, a dash of Six’s feminine re-framing and serve nice and hot. Of course, most of these shows debuted after Teenage Dick first took to the stage in the US, but there is clearly something in the air right now.
Richard Glouster (our teenage wannabe ruler) is sick of being ignored and treated like a ‘cripple’ so comes up with a plan to hijack the election for school captain by eliminating the competition by any means necessary. He must sideline the wheel-chair bound Barbara “Buck” Buckingham so as not to “split the freak vote”, take down the religious Clarissa, then go for the main target – jock superstar Eddie.
Teenage Dick is a riot and Michael Longhurst’s production neatly skates through a whole range of tones (heighted Shakespearean drama to teen comedy). Mike Lew’s script is sharp and has fun mashing together classic and contemporary text with its tongue shoved firmly in cheek.
Lew’s play fuses the familiar tale of Richard III (and our familiarity with Shakespeare’s words) with the well-worn tropes of American high school series and movies to make us take a long hard look at the way we view people with physical disabilities. Here Richard uses his disability as a tool to get his own way.
The play leaps above the simple conceit by theatrically doxing the audience as Richard uses everyone’s liberal guilt against them, playing with the audience’s desire to find sympathy in his manipulations. The love-story between Richard and Anne Margaret starts off as shame-driven virtue signaling before becoming something much sweeter.
There’s much fun to be had from the play’s dialogue and plot, but the real strength here is Daniel Monk’s performance as Richard. The play text stipulates that all disabled characters must be played by disabled actors, staying: “They exist and they’re out there”. By acknowledging the abilist history of the portrayal of Richard III and putting genuine disability on the stage, Teenage Dick bubbles with a nervous energy. The audience is at first unsure whether to laugh at Richard’s self-owning jokes, and the character uses our unease against us. Australian performer Monks, who has hemiplegia, is on fire here – owning the stage and giving a performance that is so well-crafted it would be an absolute crime to see his future opportunities as an actor limited.
Teenage Dick puts disability front and center and shows Richard as lover, hero and villain (he even gets a dance routine as satisfying as the finale of Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion). The mix of high theatre with high school comedy might give some viewers whip-lash, but I loved it.
PS – just be careful if you’re Googling “teenage dick play” at work though…