Hi there, everybody! It’s been a long time, I know, I’ve been busy with some of my myriad other responsibilities around the We Happy Compound. But the clarion call of our upcoming Shakespeare-adjacent reading caught my eye, and I followed the scent like a cartoon hobo being inexorably drawn to a pie cooling on a windowsill right here to another blog post [for those keeping track at home, the only reason I didn’t fully mix that synesthetic metaphor with all five senses was a failure on my part to think of appropriate touch or taste idioms -KH]. So here I am to write for you about the setting of the play Peerless by Jiehae Park, why it works, and how it fits into the larger canon of Shakespeare adaptations.
That setting, of course, is a high school. This setting is uncommonly popular with film adaptations of Shakespeare, in my experience. Particularly in the late 90s and early 00s. Before we go too much further I should pick a nit: I am referring to adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, by which I mean retellings in modern language of stories made famous by the Bard. Adaptations like 10 Things I Hate About You, West Side Story, She’s The Man, O, and Get Over It [I am cheating a little with West Side Story, in which the characters never attend any classes, but since they are so clearly teenagers I have decided to give myself a pass. You are powerless to stop me. I am the author, I decide what is and isn’t fair. You’re just a hypothetical audience member, and based on my readership metrics you barely exist at all -KH] I am decidedly NOT talking about films set in the modern day using Shakespeare’s text, an entirely different kettle of fish that I would love to one day write a blog post about. But today is not that day. Today is the day I write about high school adaptations of Shakespeare and why they work so well.
There are a couple reasons, by my count. First of all: high school is an emotionally fraught place, filled with emotionally fraught people. The sort of people whose feelings are right on the surface, who experience in their minds if not in actuality the strange highs and strange lows of the characters in a play. People, moreover, who are actively being taught Shakespeare. The temptation to have the actors discussing the very stories they are living through is very tempting, and as a fan of maximalism and an enemy of subtlety I see no reason for directors to not indulge that temptation.
Another telling feature is what stories are being adapted. In my brief survey of these adaptations I found 12th Night, The Taming of the Shrew, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Othello, and Romeo & Juliet. Comedies about jilted lovers, longing, and competition, a tragedy about love and infidelity [and racism -ed.], and a tragedy about love and hate whose main characters are all teenagers themselves. Add in Macbeth, the source material for Peerless, and we find a tragedy about ambition, competition, and entitlement. These themes are all right on the money for high schoolers, a tightly wound group of people if ever there was one. No one has ever “loved not wisely, but too well” more than high schoolers, who have all these emotions coursing very strongly through their minds without a good idea of what they mean or how to appropriately act upon them. The stakes for everything feel so very high in high school, a time when competition is encouraged in the classroom and on the sports field and where relative worth can be objectively measured by scores and grades, and it feels natural to carry that competition onward to romantic pursuits. With this in mind it is a little surprising there aren’t more of these adaptations; surely there is space in the cinematic world for a high school Hamlet, riddled with parent issues and indecision about what the future holds, or a Much Ado About Nothing centered around the Homecoming dance. Our own colleagues at Woolly Mammoth put on Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s high school Richard III play, just two years ago. The ground is fertile. Get on it, filmmakers of 1995-2007!
Consider also what stories AREN’T being adapted. Shakespeare was a man for all seasons, he had somber reflections about aging and legacy and statesmanship, about responsibility and fatherhood, that have little to no bearing on the lives of high schoolers. It would be difficult at best and offensive at worst to attempt to place King Lear’s struggle with parenthood and his own deteriorating mind in a sophomore biology class, or to have Shylock’s complicated battle with the legal system, anti-Semitism, and his daughter’s betrayal play out under the bleachers. The Romances are, ironically, completely inconsistent with a teenage setting, riddled as they are with tremendous leaps in time, overt mysticism and magic, and lessons about loving your children, living a good life, and being comfortable with your legacy and the approaching spectre of your death. Not a lesson that would resonate with, or make sense coming from, the captain of your all-state lacrosse team or the student body vice president.
And there is, of course, also the reason that WE and so many other theatre companies enjoy telling Shakespeare stories so much, regardless of their setting: they’re good stories. Immediately recognizable, drowning in thematic resonance and depth, populated by some of the most fleshed out and human characters in the history of literature, infinitely retellable, flexible to multiple interpretations and open for discussion and debate until the cows come home. And they’re also free, a not-to-be-sneezed-at advantage for the producer on a budget.
But Peerless wasn’t free, to gracelessly pivot back to the matter at hand in order to wrap up this blog post. We paid Concord Theatricals for the privilege of producing this reading for you all, and we were happy to do it. We are extremely excited for the chance to share this play with you, and I, personally, look forward to seeing you all there at the show tonight. Tickets are still available HERE or at the door. Prepare to relive your glory days or the living nightmare of high school, depending on your level of popularity between the ages of 15 and 18, and here’s hoping it was a little less…intense than our play tonight.