“What kind of woman is’t?”
In what is now a bit of a tradition (although I was abandoned by my usual partner in crime), late November sees me travel to the Yvonne Arnaud theatre in Guildford, as it has become one of the first places that Propeller visit as they commence their lengthy tours around the UK and beyond. Indeed my first ever Propeller experience was here with the frankly outstanding Richard III, which with The Comedy of Errors made for an incredible introduction to this all-male company. The most recent double bill of Henry V and The Winter’s Tale didn’t quite live up to that billing for me, despite still being some of the most imaginatively reinterpreted Shakespeare I saw all year, and so there was no doubt I would continue to make the pilgrimage to Surrey.
This time round, they are revisiting their 2006/7 productions of The Taming of the Shrew (which will start performances in late January) and Twelfth Night which commenced earlier in the month and which I saw at this midweek matinée. And from the lowering storm clouds that form the ever-present backdrop, it is clear that this is going to be no fluffy romp but rather a bittersweet take on Shakespeare’s rich comedy of frustrated love and sexual confusion. Sure, the production is full of the raucous innovation that Propeller bring to their reassessment of the Bard’s work and so we have here – amongst many, many other things – boxing matches, the La’s, tap dancing, nose flicking, and shirtless moving statues.
But alongside the comedy and there were points where I was near hysterical (John Dougall’s Aguecheek is hilarious, Gary Shelford does a great job as Maria and the box tree scene is simply sensational, I can’t imagine it ever being funnier), there is a keen sense of deeply held emotion too as typified by the intense bitterness that drives Vince Leigh’s booze-soaked Toby Belch or the vivaciousness of Ben Allen’s Olivia which takes little urging to come out of mourning. From the haunting beginnings of Liam O’Brien’s melancholy Celtic troubadour Feste and the ominous presence of masked sprites who patrol the stage throughout the whole show, this Twelfth Night actually turns into something quite sexy.
There’s no denying the erotic charge between Joseph Chance’s Viola, all suited up as Cesario, and Christopher Heyward’s naval officer Orsino, their mutual attraction constantly threatening to overwhelm them, Allen makes it clear that Olivia is more than ready to fill the void in her life (and her bed) and the relationship between Belch and Maria is played up nicely, a genuine sense of progression towards their eventual betrothal coming as a lovely touch. Even Chris Myles’ Malvolio, a vicious posturing presence, turns into a randy old goat once the prospect of shenanigans is put on the table.
As an all-male ensemble, the mere mention of Propeller has a tendency to cause much gnashing of teeth and endless debate about the validity of such an approach. But such a focus on the ‘all-male’ part (and I don’t deny that there are serious issues about opportunities for and representations of women on our stages) is to miss the fact that an equally important, if not more so, aspect is the ‘ensemble’. The egalitarian chemistry that is built up throughout the company is clear to see, not least in the fact that all the actors take their turn as the masked extras – playing instruments, making sound effects and generally mucking in – encouraging an appealing camaraderie and flat structure across the cast which gives a wonderfully balanced feel for them and for us, as opposed to say the Globe’s similarly all-male production of Twelfth Night which feels more loaded towards its Rylances and Frys (both in terms of its cast dynamic and audience expectation).
The sense of ensemble continuity with Propeller is also evident from the creatives list: Edward Hall directs and Michael Pavelka designs as per usual, and former actor collaborators like Jon Trenchard return to help with vocal arrangements and music once again and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart – last year’s Henry V – has taken on the role of Associate Director. And I thoroughly believe that it is this sort of background that leads to such revelatory productions as this Twelfth Night which you should most definitely take the opportunity to see as it winds its way across the globe until August 2013. It’s funny, it’s sexy, it’s moving (the final rendition of The Rain It Raineth Every Day is just stunning), it’s everything you want Shakespeare to be.
(NB As something of a poser that we mused on on the journey back, I know that there are female theatre writers who refuse to go and see all-male productions on principle, so I will be most fascinated indeed to see if they go along to the upcoming all-female version of Julius Caesar at the Donmar. I can’t quite make up my mind if this is hypocritical or not – can you be against one and yet for the other and if so, how many all-female shows will there have to be restore the balance as it were. There are no easy answers but I welcome your thoughts!)