Special affects

The National finds a niche in staging literary adaptations while Shakespeare returns to school in the Donmar's Teenage Dick

Mark Lawson

The National Theatre, during a period of erratic achievement, seems to have found a signature strength in staging recent novels. After 2019 versions of Andrea Levy’s Small Island and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, the South Bank librarian now checks out Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend (Olivier, until February 22) and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of The Lane (Dorfman, until January 25). By illuminating coincidence, both stories are autobiographical accounts of traumatic childhood events that shaped the creative imaginations of the novelists.

The writer-director combinations of April De Angelis/Melly Still (for Ferrante) and Joel Horwood/Katy Rudd (for Gaiman) have each found a style as fluid as movies but with the special visual effects having to be magicked in front of us rather than added through months of computerised post-production. Hence the extraordinary thrill when an Italian beach town suddenly materialises in My Brilliant Friend, or, in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a world of demons and dark matter appears behind a suburban bedroom. (Gaiman’s story is a post-Hawking rewrite of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.)

One caveat: both shows feature rippled sheets representing sea, and puppets as non-human or inhuman characters, leading me to feel the need for a moratorium on these theatrical devices. In such visual spectaculars, actors can be overlooked, but Niamh Cusack further burnishes a fine career as the Ferrante surrogate Lenu, and Samuel Blenkin starts on what seems sure to be a shining path as the Gaiman stand-in.

By the first month of a new year, Christmas shows can feel anachronistic. But two of those with the longest runs are secularly enjoyable enough to offer continuing consolation until spring comes.

A show based on a book by David Walliams with songs by Robbie Williams was always going to sell tickets to their fan-bases, but The Boy in the Dress (RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon, until March 8) deserves to appeal far beyond—a charming parable about non-censorious self-expression, which even finds a way of making football work on stage.

A revival of The Boy Friend (Menier Chocolate Factory, until March 7), Sandy Wilson’s frothy 1954 musical comedy set at a Riviera finishing school, is stunningly sung (Janie Dee, Amara Okereke) and expertly pick-pocketed for every possible laugh (Adrian Edmondson). It would be a huge surprise if both do not land within London’s West End within twelve months.

At the turn of a year, any titular Dicks tend to be Whittington, but the hero of Teenage Dick (Donmar Warehouse, until February 1) is King Richard III, though now a 17-year-old student, Richard Gloucester, at an American high school called Roseland.

Perhaps because adolescent classrooms contain the closest contemporary equivalent to the strict hierarchies and political and sexual plotting of 17th-century court, schools often host Shakespeare updatings—The Taming of the Shrew, Othello, and Twelfth Night respectively becoming the campus movies 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), O (2001), and She’s the Man (2006).

Mike Lew, the young Chinese-American writer of Teenage Dick, clearly knows those predecessors, but has also acutely studied Shakespeare. The contemporary renaming is sharply smart, with King Edward IV reborn as Eddie Ivy, Roseland’s star football quarterback. Queen Margaret becomes prom queen Anne Margaret, although, at her age, has understandably not been widowed but dumped by a lover. The Dukes of Clarence and Buckingham are feminised as Clarissa Duke and Barbara “Buck” Buckingham, in an understandable attempt at gender re-balance.

The main example of diverse characterisation continues from the original. Richard Gloucester suffers discrimination for a disability, although Lew departs from Shakespeare in specifying (in the text published by Nick Hern Books) that no able-bodied actor should ever play the role. He also requests that “Buck” be cast, as written, as a wheelchair-user. In the London premiere, Daniel Monks, a hemiplegic, is Dick, with Ruth Madeley as Buck.

This physical authenticity brings an unusual peril to the fight scenes, in which it is impossible to know which moves are directed and which bodily dictated. Another tension for those familiar with Richard III is how Lew will find an equivalent to the astonishing psychopathic love scene (“Was ever woman in this humour wooed?”) where the demented pretender seduces his rival’s grieving ex. Cleverly, the tension becomes not how Anne Margaret can possibly succumb to a man who disgusts her, but how she will come up with a refusal that doesn’t sound bigoted. Richard plays cynically on her desire to seem “woke”.

Another American import that provocatively plays with the audience’s stereotypes and sensitivities is Fairview (Young Vic, until January 23). This Pulitzer Prize-winner by Jackie Sibblies Drury starts with an African-American family preparing for a birthday dinner. The scene lasts around half an hour, a significant length as the super-bright lighting and exaggerated acting and reactions increasingly suggest a sitcom episode. We then see everything again, the cast exactly reproducing the movements of their bodies and lips, but hear quite different voices, again indicating that the action is a show within a show.

Critics have been asked not to reveal what occurs during the last part, but suffice to say that it is a further reversal of expectations that takes a large part of the audience to a very unexpected place. I should also report that a significant number of keen theatre-goers I know, who went as ticket-buying civilians, were furious about this turn-over moment, feeling that it was both ideologically cheap and broke the contract of respect with paying customers.

The ambushes seem intended to make a point about the depiction and perception of minority ethnic people, especially in popular culture. Some critics suggested that Fairview was exaggerating the extent of a problem that is now diminishing. However, the white avalanche in this month’s BAFTA film nominations suggests that the play’s view is fair.

What struck me about both Fairview and Teenage Dick is that, while the drive in British theatre for greater diversity and sensitivity often tends towards virtuously stern work, American dramatists are finding ways of being progressive but also bold. (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, seen recently at the Donmar, is another example.) Woke theatre need not mean sleepy evenings.

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