SINCE THEIR formation in the mid-1990s, Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller Theatre ensemble have been internationally feted as one of Britain’s most exciting theatre companies. Their appearance at the Galway Arts Festival with the ‘Bardic Brace’ of Merchant of Venice and A Midsummer Night’s Dream ranks high on the list of ‘must-see’ events in this year’s programme.
Company founder and artistic director Edward Hall is the son of director Sir Peter Hall, one of the foremost figures in English theatre of the past 50 years. However that didn’t mean theatre would be Edward’s first choice of career, as he revealed over an evening phone call.
“I was always excited by theatre, I remember as a kid it engrossed me that adults did such a thing as theatre,” he says. “When kids play they are often exploring ideas and telling each other stories and theatre is just a more sophisticated version of that. I didn’t go straight into it as a career though.
“I worked in the music biz for a while, running my own small studio. When I was younger I was a handy cricketer and represented Hampshire at under-19 level so that seemed a possibility at one point. Then I trained as an actor and myself and some friends put on a show to take to Edinburgh and I borrowed some money off the bank to do it – this was a time when banks would actually lend money for plays! – and that was my first time directing and I never looked back.”
In 1997 Propeller made its bow with a production of Henry V and since then the company has gone on to garner numerous accolades and awards for productions such as Rose Rage (their adaptation of Henry VI ), Twelfth Night, and Taming of the Shrew. So what is it about the Propeller dynamic that has sustained their impetus so successfully for the past 12 years?
“Firstly, Shakespeare is wonderful material,” Hall notes. “ Beyond that, we’re essentially an actors’ company. I might kick off the starting idea but thereafter there is a huge communal effort. We try to use the actors’ skills as much as possible; so the actors will cover the scene changes, the sound effects and do as much of the music as possible.
“The company is very much owned by the actors so if I ask for actors to put in that extra ‘half yard’ they always do so and I often get actors telling me ‘This feels like home’ when they come back to start rehearsals for a new show and that’s a rare thing in theatre.”
The distinctive feature of Propeller as a company, their USP if you will, is that it is an all-male ensemble. What qualities does that bring to their stagings of Shakespeare?
“In one way that’s hard to answer because one group of men will be different to another group,” Hall observes. “However, there is a physical energy there which informs the love scenes and love-fights very markedly. It also enables ironic comments on gender politics, it brings a different angle to things, and helps unravel Shakespeare in interesting ways.”
Does Hall envisage that Propeller might go on to stage all of Shakespeare’s plays in due course, or are there any that just don’t hold any appeal for him?
“We’ll go on as far as this road takes us,” he declares. “We might even expand into doing other authors or doing plays we devise ourselves. I don’t know if there’s any of the plays I specially dislike - although Merry Wives of Windsor always strikes me as a play he just wrote for a fast buck!”
Moving on to the two plays Propeller are bringing to Galway; in Merchant of Venice Hall and his company intriguingly relocate the action to a prison setting. What was the thinking behind that decision?
“I wanted to hijack the standard ideas of how the play and the characters are usually portrayed, like how Jewish should Shylock look for instance,” he explains. “I wanted to devise a setting where everyone looks the same and people’s behaviour is radicalised in a way that emphasises their nature.
“I think the prison milieu helps heighten the sense of wealth and material possessions that drives the characters and it’s a setting in which it’s plausible that someone could literally have his heart cut out; it’s a world where violence could literally explode in a second.”
Hall thinks Merchant... is one of Shakespeare’s best plays.
“It can be very tense, yet there are also wonderfully romantic episodes, and insightful pieces of moral philosophy,” he observes. “Our prison setting is one where you have men feminising themselves rather than them being female characters per se – as you find in a story like Kiss of the Spiderwoman for example. You have that triangle between Antonio, Bassanio, and Portia.
“I think the Elizabethans were less hung up than we are about such things. We need to put labels on everything but it’s really just a question of love or kindness between people regardless if they’re male or female. The play deals with the notion that there is no oath that can’t be broken; everyone dissembles – it’s a recurrent theme in Shakespeare. The all male cast lets us explore that theme in an interesting way.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and oft-staged plays so how have Propeller approached this?
“Midsummer Night’s Dream is a mix of magic and a hard-edged look at love and interestingly, the more painful the characters’ situations are the funnier the play becomes,” says Hall. “I think it’s one of only two Shakespeare plays - Twelfth Night is the other- which he totally made up from scratch; with all the others he drew on existing stories for his material.
“It’s a perfectly made play. I feel sure it was a commission for an aristocratic wedding; you have the three weddings in it. In the play Shakespeare creates a place of magic and possibility; we have Puck as the storyteller with this cohort of fairies who assume the roles of other characters. It’s quite a physical show.
“It’s also a very funny play – on tour we are finding audiences seem to end up laughing at every other line! We’ve been touring these two plays since the start of the year in Britain as well as to Milan and New York but, you know, I have a sneaking suspicion Galway will prove to be the highpoint of our tour!”
It could very well be...
For tickets contact the festival box office, Merchants Road, 091 - 566577. Tickets are also available through www.galwayartsfestival.com