In which I take issue with Michael Billington (and the whole theatre ecology) (and the world) when it comes to dealing with disability. Something which Teenage Dick at the Donmar Warehouse does extremely well.
“As winter formal gives way to glorious spring fling”
There’s something a little interesting about the way that theatre, and theatre criticism, is tackling disability. Movements towards promoting racial diversity have rightfully been widely celebrated and are beginning the process of hopefully recalibrating the theatrical and critical firmament for good. But when it comes to disability, the same can’t be really said… Onstage, glimmers like the current RSC ensemble and the recently closed Joe Egg remain the exception rather than the rule; when it comes to reviewers, disabled voices are even thinner on the ground (are we surprised, when accessibility in so much pub theatres remains limited, when captioning services are rarely available by press night…).
Which is all a rather long-winded way of introducing the canny brilliance of Mike Lew’s Teenage Dick, open now at the Donmar Warehouse, and to pull up Michael Billington on assumptions made in his response. His final paragraph talks of “a radical shift in the politics of disability and a revolution in theatrical performance” which he feels undermines the play’s argument about how disabled people can be treated in a society that always, always bends to the ableist. There’s just so much privilege baked in there that I feel I have to react, even if Billington is on his valedictory lap of honour.
When was the last time you saw two disabled actors in a company of six in a ‘regular’ production? The only reason you see two here at the Donmar is because it is specified that the two roles of Richard and Barbara “Buck” Buckingham should be played by disabled actors. There’s a real thrill in getting to see Daniel Monks and Ruth Madeley interact for reasons outwith their (different) disabilities, but I think we’re kidding ourselves if we’re yet in a place where this would happen organically. So too in society, things may have changed some when it comes the “politics” but the reality is a world full of people who are far too happy to retweet inspiration porn of babies hearing for the first time but who will moan loudly if they end up at a subtitled performance, never mind the daily grind of having to deal with people ‘dealing’ with one’s disability.
For me, I really rather enjoyed the raucous energy that lies at the heart of Teenage Dick. It is a smartly self-aware, free adaptation and so ultimately has more in common with the likes of & Juliet and 10 Things I Hate About You than it does with any straight production of Richard III (which I think is more of a sticking point for Billers), shifting the play to the world of US high school politics. And there, Michael Longhurst’s production has great fun in playing up the tropes of the dumb jock, the over-achieving nerd, the unlikely love story, and ZOMG Carly Rae Jepsen! Chloe Lamford’s set switches up the space brilliantly and Monks plays all the contradictions of his leading man with real insight. Like all the best villains, he’s a mess of complexity, loathable in one moment, almost likeable in the next, and he really makes us think about the preconceptions that we all carry with us and what they might do to the person in receipt of them.