Shakespeare and the High School rom-com go way back; the universality of his plays make them suitable for adaptation to a number of different environments and in the prescribed social structure of the American High School with its strict categorisations, power plays and love of social gatherings (proms, pep rallies and elections) it is a perfect setting to explore some of Shakespeare’s most enduring themes. Gil Junger’s 1999 reworking of The Taming of the Shrew became the accomplished 10 Things I Hate About You, a high point of the genre that made stars of Julia Styles and Heath Ledger, while Baz Luhrmann took a more traditional approach to the language if not the style of his 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet starring pin-up Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. And plenty of High School movies have at the very least referenced or borrowed plot points or ideas from Shakespeare including Never Been Kissed in 1999 whose heroine played by Drew Barrymore adored As You Like It.
In this context, Mike Lew’s new stage adaptation of Richard III feels surprisingly at home in its new world of teenage angst and social divisions set against the backdrop of the Senior Class President elections at one normal American High School. Taking Shakespeare’s overarching plot, some characters and themes as inspiration, the way in which the two genres have been melded together is remarkably sophisticated although on the surface Teenage Dick looks and sounds like your almost average US teen movie. And while the adaptation has not found universal favour among the critics, anyone growing-up in the era of the High School rom-com will delight in its affection for the genre and an approach that celebrates rather than dilutes Shakespeare’s text.
From the mid-1980s with The Breakfast Club to the mid-2000s when High School Musical signaled the end of the golden age of this enduring genre, for 20-years the US high school movie was a relatively low-budget staple of productions aimed at the teen audience. While the tone varied, they all had their stock formula, usually some kind of disaffected loner or outsider drawn into the world of the cool kids in order to effect change, social realisation and self-belief. There were highs like Heathers (1989) and Mean Girls (2004) – both now stage musicals – as well as the satire Election (1999) and there were plenty of lows too but the genre launched the careers of actors from Paul Rudd to Lindsay Lohan, Zac Efron to Rachel McAdam, Alicia Silverstone, Emilio Estevez and countless others who all went on to bigger, albeit quite different careers.
In Teenage Dick Lew absorbs all of this to believable create Roseland Junior High where jock Eddie is gunning for re-election as Senior Class President having served in the position for two years based entirely on his good looks and football-star status. Surrounding him in what is a very small cast for this kind of setting, we have a teacher Miss York looking to promote social equality and justice, therefore easy to manipulate, and the outcasts demarcated by their disabilities. But integrating Shakespeare into this context makes Lew’s approach so much more interesting than that and soon the audience is questioning whether the apparent divisions we are shown are only truly visible to Richard Gloucester, our protagonist and potential villain.
The central role is recognisably Richard III and those who know the play well will enjoy watching his masterful manipulation of friends and teachers as he manoeuvres himself into candidacy while letting his helpers think it was their idea. But in our more enlightened times, Lew deliberately sidesteps the notion of a truly dastardly Richard while also deciding to tone down the violence to make it appropriate for the High School setting. Instead, Lew asks interesting questions – as Shakespeare does to a degree – about the perception of Richard’s disability and its role in preventing others from seeing him as a leader. Most importantly though, we see clearly how Richard fails to see past his own physical appearance and it is this misconception about others that drives his behaviour and the action of the play.
What is so interesting about Teenage Dick is that there are no straightforward heroes and villains, so we see both Richard and Eddie behaving badly, squaring-up to one another while also being reminded that they are essentially children, 17-year olds acting out with a greater capacity for emotional development than the early part of the play suggests. The audience becomes complicit in its categorisation of the characters into their High School cliches before Lew spends some time in the second half revealing more complex truths beneath the surface.
Richard’s plan to bring about Eddie’s downfall initially seems straightforward and entirely justified when the popular boy taunts and mercilessly bullies Richard, using his disability against him. Eddie’s arrogance and use of offensive language to describe Richard’s condition pit the audience against him while he appears equally cruel in dumping the play’s love interest Anne Margaret before the action begins. Yet as with Shakespeare’s version, our changing opinion and understanding of Richard starts to recast the people around him, including Eddie so before too long other traits including his friendship with Barbara Buckingham known as “Bucks” and his clear popularity at the Presidential Debate force us to re-evaluate our judgement of him. This is only given greater emphasis by the shocking revelations and events of the last section that makes us wonder if, as our narrator, Richard has been manipulating the perspective of the audience as well as the characters.
Lew follows Shakespeare and incorporates aspects of his work in interesting ways across the play, occasionally having Richard break into a flowery Elizabethan structured speech (something which “Bucks” reminds him repeatedly is weird) and maintaining the wonderful soliloquies in which the protagonist directly addresses the audience in spotlighted revelations of his evil plans – there’s even a very funny moment when “Bucks” is onstage for one of these and thinks her unresponsive friend has just gone to “his happy place.” More humour comes from the occasional phrase borrowed from other plays including Julius Caesar – it is used sparingly but adds to the semi-artificiality that both the High School setting and Shakespeare create in allowing Richard to narrate his own story.
But Lew also gives Shakespeare short shrift for his treatment of women and the expansion of Anne Margaret’s character to create the central romance as well as delving into her backstory, aspirations and own feelings of self-exclusion which are meaningfully explored. There is a very sweet tentative chemistry that builds between the initially nervous Anne and Richard, two people from quite different cliques who find humanity in each other, and it is this which prevents Lew’s play from becoming either too snide or too lightweight. The effect of Richard’s decisions have significant consequences for this character and Lew gives her a chance to meaningfully address the viewer and stake her claim to relevance beyond Richard’s existence.
Lew has stipulated that both Richard and “Bucks” must be played by disabled actors which makes perfect sense in this version of the story. Daniel Monks is superb as the teenage Dick of the title, a young man tired of being defined and reduced by his physical appearance so decides to assume the mantle of the villain – as his Shakespearean counterpart does – to upset the balance of power in the school. What makes Monks’s performance so interesting is the conflicted perspective he brings to the role and not only does his Richard believe he is a good person using nefarious means to bring about a greater good, but sometimes he really is.
This nuance is evident all the way through the show and while it takes Richard to quite different places, navigating both a sensitive and sweet relationship with Anne Margaret that develops a real emotional honesty, and into some much more controversial territory as he schemes and undermines his friends, Monks retains the oily fascination of the original character who cannot see beyond his own image and uses that to blame others, while finding a large degree of empathy for his genuine social struggles. And this makes his final actions all the more shocking as he loses control and perspective.
The supporting cast is equally fine, particularly Siena Kelly as the compression of two Shakespearean originals to create a young woman desperate to hide from the spotlight to focus on her dream of becoming a dancer, but she learns to care for Richard and Kelly makes her trajectory extremely moving. Ruth Madeley is a calm presence as best friend “Bucks”, the only character to remain rational throughout, refusing to be blinded by Richard’s obsession with Eddie and finding plenty of comedy in their sparky interactions. Susan Wokoma is fantastic as the enthusiastically naive teacher unwittingly drawn into Richard’s plans, while Callum Adams as Eddie and Alice Hewkin as Clarissa perfectly represent their High School tribes but get to offer some deeper sense of motivation and emotion beneath the surface.
It all looks wonderfully recognisable in Chloe Lamford’s basketball court setting, with floor markings and hoop redolent of any secondary school gymnasium. Characters are dressed appropriately for their social status with Richard in the trademark black jeans and t-shirt of the outsider while sweatshirts and school-branded baseball jackets mark out the sporty boys. The transformations are quickly managed by Director Michael Longhurst who takes a cinematic approach to scene changes using speedily rearranged furniture and lighting to maintain pace. The ball scene is simply and effectively achieved instantly establishing the characteristics of an event we’ve seen in countless movies, but it is the inclusion of projected social media feeds, hashtags, tweets and characters filming on their smartphone that brings this up to date, skewering our modern obsession with an instant visual record and online responsiveness that magnifies every humiliation and private moment.
The murderous tension doesn’t build in the same way as Shakespeare’s original and that sense of deathly danger is all but expunged, yet at only 1 hour and 50 minutes rather than three hours something has to give, not to mention that the idea of mass murders in a High School setting would be in pretty poor taste. Lew has nonetheless created a version of Richard III that suits this context extremely well asking the audience to consider attitudes to disability, power and social structures that perpetuate all kinds of inequality. Teenage Dick may make less sense to those who bypassed the High School movie, but Lew’s play is funny, sad and meaningful, and like Joel Edgerton and David Michod’s film The King, Lew demonstrates that Shakespeare’s characters, plots, structure and themes are just as important as his verse and vocabulary, proving that Shakespeare’s understanding of human nature is as relevant to a battlefield in Leicestershire as it is to a High School gym in America.