I first encountered Propeller seven years ago when I was transfixed by their innovative adaptation of the three parts of Henry VI – Rose Rage. It was a visceral and exciting production and one that stands as a model for making less popular plays accessible and entertaining. I was, therefore, thrilled to be seeing them again with their current tour of two of the most popular Comedies in the Shakespearean canon.
I know this is almost a heretical view but I really do not like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I have seen it too many times and have failed to be entertained on too many occasions. Would this still be the case with Edward Hall and the men of Propeller?
The answer is no! They have created a production that works on many, many levels. It has not converted me to the play but their version is one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent in the theatre. They use the text as a springboard for a series of hilarious set-pieces combining music and physical theatre techniques that make the characters come alive for the audience.
Dominating the performance is the dangerous Puck of Jon Trenchard. Dressed in striped tights and a tutu, he is impish presence throughout the evening – always unpredictable but never dull. Richard Frame and Babou Ceesay are having great fun as Hermia and Helena – making much of the ambiguity of having men playing women. They use voice and physicality to create strikingly original interpretations.
The evening does belong to the Mechanicals. All too often the ‘play within a play’ can be an anti-climax but here is was the highlight that had the audience completely entranced. Never before has Wall got a prolonged ovation on his exit – it was very well deserved; David Newman made it an unforgettable moment. Bob Barrett’s Bottom stopped the show. He managed to over-play every single line and never once cause things to drag. There was a sense that everything they were doing was improvised but at the same time you felt very confident that every detail had been perfected.
I can think of no better introduction to the world of Shakespeare – it was irreverent, funny and always true to the spirit of the text. Yes, there were some liberties taken with the language but never once did it feel like an imposition or a concept. Probably not a definitive Dream but certainly the most enjoyable I have ever seen.
The Merchant of Venice had a completely different feel. It was muscular, violent and oppressive. There was an aura of real danger and conflict that made what is a very tricky play feel very vibrant and relevant.
If anyone has seen the HBO drama series Oz, you will be familiar with the setting of a prison where violence, money and sexuality are thrown together in a potential explosive environment. This production is clearly informed by that sort of atmosphere and it resonates with the underlying tensions of the text.
It is not an easy watch – the blinding of Salerio is a real shock. Shylock (played without any hint of stereotype by Richard Clothier) is shown as a man who is driven by avarice and who sees violence as a natural reaction to any threat. The anti-Semitism of the Christian characters is given a very honest portrayal but you are always aware that Shylock would be hated no matter his religious background.
Kelsey Brookfield makes a sensationally good Portia – using language with real relish. He is well matched with the hilarious Nerissa of Chris Myles – clad in hot pants and fishnets, he manages to make so much more of his character than just the usual ‘maid’.
There was nothing glamorous or pretty about this production – the setting and action matched the brutality of the situation and language. It has made me look at the play in a completely different light – something for which I am very grateful.
Propeller is one of the best young companies currently working in the UK. Their commitment, creativity and passion are so evident that many others would do well to imitate. Edward Hall has created a group of actors who understand their craft and who want to entertain audiences. I hope they will return to Oxford very soon with something equally challenging and enjoyable.