What a wonderful way to spend Easter – to discover a ‘new’ theatre company with wonderful productions of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream‘ and ‘The Comedy of Errors‘.
The company is ‘Propeller’ which is new to me, even though it has been going since 1997. If it’s new to you, and you’re interested in Shakespeare, you need to know more about them. They were in Edinburgh over Easter and we were lucky enough to see both productions on Easter Friday, and Easter Saturday.
In this post, we’ll talk about both productions and then a little about the company and why we think they’re important.
Let’s start with ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. When we get to our seats the stage curtains are open, and one or two males dressed in white are onstage, looking out with interest at the gathering audience. The set is quite simple. At the back of the stage there’s a white net curtain, and above it, and all three sides of the stage, there’s a ‘shelf’ of chairs about nine feet off the ground. On either side of the stage, there’s some scaffolding which connects up with the shelf of chairs. The side walls also are white. The whole thing is a little reminiscent of Peter Brook’s famous ‘Dream’ (which I’ve never seen, though I’ve seen the photos, and some videoed extracts). The effect of the set is a slightly surreal empty space, so plenty of space for the actors to act, and plenty of options for magical stuff. Anticipation grows!!! As the audience gathers, so do the actors on stage. There’s a cast of fourteen of them, mostly dressed in white.
A quite high-pitched piping sound starts up, grows in volume, the actors start moving, and we’re off on a magical dream which is only briefly interrupted for the interval, and then carries us right to Oberon’s blessing of the house and all within it, and Puck’s call for the audience’s applause, which is given with vigour and gratification (six curtain calls) by an entranced audience.
What to say about the play? Only a few, brief impressions. The text was taken much faster than most productions. It demanded (and got) the audience’s full attention. That was helped by the physical movement which complemented the text so the players (particularly Puck) became like dancers. To keep the rhythm, the dance and the words were complemented with a range of mysterious sound effects all made by the players onstage using a variety of instruments, from ridged wooden blocks scraped by wooden batons (for me, an effective cicada) to cellos, and bells, and mouth organs and on and on and on. The shelf of chairs became another playing space with players crawling along them, dropping down onto the stage, or disappearing through an exit. The scaffolding too was used throughout the show, notably for the fight between Titania and Oberon over the Indian boy. Onstage the fairies (far more than usual) danced and whirled and waved their legs in the air and gave the audience the most enormous fun. And really magical use of floating drapes and smoke. And the rude mechanicals? It’s the only production I’ve seen where Thisbe’s death upstaged an already outrageous death scene from Pyramus!
We went home after the show in a happy daze of Shakespeare’s and the production’s magic!!!
The previous night we had been to see ‘The Comedy of Errors’ at the same theatre with the same company. Again we arrived to find the stage curtains open, with some musicians on stage in festive holiday gear: sombreros, sunglasses, and musical instruments. Is it Greece? Is it Mexico? It doesn’t really matter – it’s holiday party time – in the 80s. Now I have to confess that this is not my favourite play or setting. The Comedy of Errors is a farce, and farce is not my favourite style, even when Shakespeare weaves his magic over it. I’m a child of the seventies. I ‘dropped out’ in the seventies, and then dropped back in again in the eighties, and was far too busy catching up and working hard to have any holidays in the eighties, so most of the eighties cultural references went straight over my head (apart from the Billy Graham-like revivalist preacher song by Pinch).
The audience however loved it. They roared with laughter throughout the show, and the end of the show was greeted with the same enthusiastic applause as ‘The Dream’.
My slight distance from the performance allowed me to explore how the show was constructed. Again, the pace of the verse-speaking was very fast This is a high-risk strategy. If you take the audience with you, they have to give the performance a level of attention they are not used to giving. If you lose them, they’re probably gone for ever. However, in farce, the physical slapstick can complement the rhythm of the verse, as the dance did in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, so long speeches (and short) were punctuated with physical slapstick: kicks and punches; plates broken over heads, etc. Each punch was emphasized by some sound effect, always from members of the cast, so again we have the mix of verse, movement and sound coming together to create a rhythm which the audience irresistibly followed. These effects can be used for additional comic effect – in the argument about the purchase of the chain, each occurrence of the word ‘chain’ was echoed by a bell, with increasing comic effect.
Although not moved by this production as I was to be by ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ the next night, I was awestruck by the technical competence of the cast and the high-energy approach to the production, which created such a hugely enjoyable show.
There are other aspects of the productions and the theatre company which are out of the ordinary:
an all-male cast of fourteen, touring two Shakespeare plays around Europe for almost a year!!! (In 2016 they hope to tour five plays – their version of ‘The Wars of the Roses’ with Edward III, Henry V, Henry VI [in two parts], and Richard III).
the all-maleness of the cast is worth commenting on further. Female roles were played straight, with none of the usual giggles from males playing females. In an after-show discussion, the actors said that their approach to female roles was through their characters and never their gender. From an audience perspective, it worked well.
The scripts of both plays did not eschew long speeches. Indeed they, and the audience, seemed to delight in them. Antipholus’s (I”m not sure which one) very long explanation of what had been happening to the Duke, brought loud applause from the audience. There were some cuts (e.g. Philostrate had disappeared from A5S1 in ‘The Dream’) but they were few and far between, and did not seem to be driven by a desire to shorten speeches.
There seems a real commitment to creating a company: each actor is signed up for a full year’s run, and each one is offered a role the following year. Of course some actors move on, but this creates a nucleus of a company with some new people joining, most staying, some old members re-joining, and a general continuity.
Perhaps the most important thing that Propeller are doing relates to their commitment to the primary text. Here in the UK, the RSC in the glory days of Peter Hall, John Barton, and Cicely Berry et. al., created a ‘naturalistic style’ which influenced a generation of actors: Judi Dench; Sheila Hancock; Alan Howard; Ben Kingsley; Ian McKellan; David Suchet; etc; etc. That generation is beginning to pass, and with it that ‘naturalistic style’. It was great whilst it lasted, but it’s now time to move on. The RSC seem to be moving to a more mannered style which I find less effective.
Propeller’s approach of returning to Shakespeare’s texts, and adopting a more Elizabethan approach to performing those texts – mostly by playing them faster seems a more positive way forward.
This year, Propeller are not visiting the United States. They have in the past, and for those of you who live there, it might be an idea to encourage future visits from them. 2016 and ‘The Wars of the Roses’ looks like a good opportunity.