Reviewer: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud

“A manly enterprise”

Propeller’s 2013/14 tour sees them revive their productions ofThe Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the latter kicking things off in a few venues this winter before the former joins it in rep early next year. The all-male Shakespeare company has rightfully garnered considerable praise for its innovative ensemble-driven approach to the Bard’s works but returning to this interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, previously seen in 2003 and 2009, sees them lose a little of that special magic that they have previously brought to bear.

Located in a Victorian attic of sorts, the story of the course of true love is surprisingly leaden in a protracted first half which fails to reveal any real sense of purpose to Edward Hall’s production. The ducal court is dull with a criminally insipid Hippolyta, any character that does arrive in Will Featherstone’s performance is too little too late; there’s a quartet of curiously bloodless lovers, with only Dan Wheeler’s Helena really standing out; and the Rude Mechanicals are serviceable but little more. Joseph Chance’s Wizard of Oz-inspired Puck really is the saving grace with his supple slyness.  Continue reading “Reviewer: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud”

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible

 “There’s some ill planet reigns”

Sheffield’s autumnal Shakespeares have become something of a yearly institution and a regular fixture in my theatregoing diary. This year sees The Winter’s Tale arrive at the Crucible with something of a less starry cast than in previous years (although Barbara Marten and Claire Price were both strong draws for us) and the return of director Paul Miller to the series, after his Hamlet back in 2010. Sad to say though, this was not for me – the atmosphere hampered by a sadly sparse matinée audience but the production also full of choices that just didn’t appeal.

Shakespeare’s late play relies on the careful balancing of two halves – Sicilia’s dark tragedy and Bohemia’s pastoral vibrancy, the pain of simmering jealousy against the freshness of new love. But though they must complement each other, they need to effectively stand alone as well and Miller struggles with his opening act. The sparseness of Simon Daw’s design places the focus strictly on the interactions of his actors, but his preferred method of placing them at some distance from each other on the large stage estranges them too much, both from each other and from the audience. Continue reading “Review: The Winter’s Tale, Crucible”

Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Propeller at Hampstead

“It will make the man mad, to make a woman of him”

It is nigh on impossible to put on a production of The Taming of the Shrew these days without first considering how to solve the issues that lie at the heart of this problematic play. Last year saw the Globe play it for laughs hugely successfully and it also saw the RSC up the erotic ante with less effective results, we now get the all-male Propeller interpretation in London which takes a yet different route into one of Shakespeare’s more difficult works. In direct contrast with their take on Twelfth Night, there is a marked lack of sexual attraction in this world, instead this is firmly a tale about power and control and just how brutal the male exercising thereof can get.

Ed Hall’s production plays up the framing device of Christopher Sly’s drunken shenanigans and firmly locates the main body of the story, of Petruchio’s brutish diminishment of the spirited Kate, in the play-within-a-play. This is achieved mainly by the rather nifty device of having Sly himself co-opted into being part of the play put on for his benefit – Vince Leigh’s sizzled tinker morphing into a viciously virile Petruchio who then becomes the calculatingly hard focal point, failing to realise just what is being revealed of his true self in the telling of this tale.  Continue reading “Review: The Taming of the Shrew, Propeller at Hampstead”

Re-review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

“Ay marry, what is he?”

It’s over six months since Propeller started their most recent tour and so a similar amount of time since I saw Twelfth Night back in Guildford, a production I enjoyed immensely and ranked as my 13th favourite of the year. And as is now their wont, their tour makes a late stop at Edward Hall’s London abode at the Hampstead Theatre for an extended stay where both their productions (The Taming of the Shrew is the other this time round) will play in rep. Getting to revisit a show like this is something of a luxury and a rare opportunity at that, I ummed and aahed briefly about booking again but the lure of the front row was too strong for me to resist. 

And I am glad I went back for seconds, for this really is my kind of Shakespearean comedy. Not so much in the all-male playing of it but rather in the restraint with which it goes for the laughs, concentrating instead on a tone of sustained melancholy. In emphasising the bittersweet notes as it does – from the start, it is clear Liam O’Brien’s Feste prefers a more mournful ballad – the play is given, for me at least, a greater sense of depth. A real feeling of loneliness, pain and bitterness to so many of these characters creates an ideal counterweight to the broad humour once it comes and makes us feel their ups and downs so much more. Continue reading “Re-review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud

“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. Continue reading “Review: Twelfth Night, Propeller at Yvonne Arnaud”

Review: The Winter’s Tale, Propeller at the Crucible

“Many a man there is”

The second part of Propeller’s current double bill is The Winter’s Tale and much as we did last year for The Comedy of Errors, Boycotting Trends and I (with bonus @3rdspearcarrier) trekked up to Sheffield to catch it early in the substantial tour that follows. It was a little sad but true that Henry V failed to live up to my (sky-high) expectations so I’d aimed for a better job of managing them this time round for this ‘problem play’.

Sicilia is all moon-lit stark, metallic edges, the dark candle-lit atmosphere matching the troubled mind of Leontes, whose tortured jealousy sends him into a frenzy that challenges a lifelong friendship, the will of the gods and the lives of his children and his dear wife Hermione. Robert Hands give his Leontes an anger that subtly builds rather than one that defines his character and thus we feel for him even in his most fevered moments and always see the husband and father that is being lost in the red mist of jealousy – this in turn makes it (slightly) more believable that Hermione might forgive him. Continue reading “Review: The Winter’s Tale, Propeller at the Crucible”

Re-review: The Comedy of Errors, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

“Alas, poor women! Make us but believe…”

Revisiting The Comedy of Errors, one of the Propeller shows currently residing at the Hampstead Theatre proved to be even more fun than seeing Richard III again as I found myself enjoying it more on second viewing. I actually trekked up to Sheffield to see this at the beginning of their tour and my review of the show from then still stands as there really is little more to add and i’m running out of superlatives with which to describe the guys: “anarchic panache” and “reverentially irreverent” are my personal favourites.

I can’t help but feel, that more so with this than RIII, that this is about as definitive an interpretation of the play as I will ever see. RIII has its absolutely delicious moments to be sure but I have seen and can still see other ways of doing the play that would work (if not quite as well) but in terms of getting the laughs out of a Shakespearean comedy, this is in my experience unequalled. Hardly a joke misfires or an eyebrow raises as it is all so finely tuned and carefully interpreted to extract the maximum enjoyment that I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t love this. Continue reading “Re-review: The Comedy of Errors, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre”

Re-review: Richard III, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre

“I like you lads; about your business straight”

It seems only natural that Edward Hall would bring Propeller’s touring double bill of Richard III and The Comedy of Errors to the Hampstead Theatre, he is after all the Artistic Director for both the all-male Shakespeare company and the Swiss Cottage venue, but when the shows were first announced, there was no mention of London in the tour. Keen to have my first Propeller experience, trips were made to Guildford and Sheffield to see the shows and then as sod’s law would have it of course, a short residency in London was announced. Still, I am glad that I got to see the shows earlier, way back in November in the case of Richard III, as it has meant I was able to see them, love them, recommend them to all and sundry as they toured the country and finally get to revisit both shows as I’m pretty sure this is about as good as interpretations of Shakespeare can get.

 My review of Richard III back in November in Guildford can be read here and to be honest and somewhat less than humble, reading it back, I think it is one of my best pieces of writing in capturing how exhilarating a production it is and how enthusiastic I felt about it. Very little of my exceedingly positive opinion has changed and taking in a second viewing allowed me to appreciate some of the smaller details that passed me by first time round as there really are so many inventive touches in here, it feels impossible to soak them all in with a single viewing. Continue reading “Re-review: Richard III, Propeller at Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Pocket Dream, Propeller at the Underbelly Festival

“Why are you wearing a tutu?”

As part of the Underbelly Festival on the South Bank, Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller have revisited and shrunk their production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream down into a 1 hour, family-friendly version called Pocket Dream. A company of six bring the customary Propeller rough-and-tumble physicality to the production which is matched by the approach to the text, which has been adapted and condensed by Roger Warren but remains utterly recognisable. Everything has been trimmed down, save the Rude Mechanicals’ play which is mostly all there, only Theseus and Hippolyta have been given the axe and even they make a delightful surprise appearance at the end of the show.

The men were all identically and androgynously dressed in white and a toy box placed centre-stage from which all the accoutrements to create the various characters were produced: pyjamas tops and nightdresses for the lovers, feathery, glittery cloaks, tutus and collars for the fairies and workmen outfits for the Mechanicals. Just two umpires’ chairs on the circular playing space were needed for them to create their magic. And magic it was, with frequently laugh-out-loud funny sections mixed in with poetic moments, demonstrating a deep understanding of how to make Shakespeare really sing and connect with an audience. Their anarchic spirit was still in evidence too with a few moments of meta-theatre sprinkled in too, the above-mentioned quote being the best, blink-and-miss-it instance of that. Continue reading “Review: Pocket Dream, Propeller at the Underbelly Festival”

Review: The Comedy of Errors, Propeller at Sheffield Lyceum

“Men, all divine, the masters of all these”

It is not often that I start off reviews with a negative comment but it must be said that Ed Hall and his Propeller company are naughty, naughty boys. When they announced their tour of their new productions, London was not among the cities and towns being visited so schedules were looked at, train timetables checked and we duly booked trips to Guildford to see Richard III and to Sheffield to see The Comedy of Errors. They then of course announced a short stop at the Hampstead Theatre which would have cut down on my travelling time somewhat. But, they don’t play there until the end of June and having seen both these shows now, I don’t think I could have coped with the anticipation waiting that long as they are sensationally good.

Ephesus has been re-imagined as a Costa del Sol type resort in Michael Pavelka’s design, full of football-shirt wearing blokes, geezers selling fake watches and flirtatious policemen and the air is filled with music, played live by the company who frequently break out into song, mostly snippets of cheesy 80s tunes which are brilliantly done and never outstay their welcome. Most of the ensemble remain onstage throughout, slipping out of their main role and into this group to provide a raft of sound effects straight out of a cartoon which are ridiculously funny and creating amusing moments in group scenes. Continue reading “Review: The Comedy of Errors, Propeller at Sheffield Lyceum”