Propeller – director Edward Hall’s multi award-winning all-male Shakespearean ensemble – opened two productions, The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, on Wednesday (17 January 2007, previews from 5 January) at the West End’s Old Vic, where they continue in rep until 17 February 2007 (See News, 9 May 2006).

The Taming of the Shrew opened first at Propeller’s home base, the Watermill Theatre in Newbury, in September before touring and visiting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works Festival ahead of its West End transfer. This week marked the first airing of the company’s new staging of Twelfth Night. Following the Old Vic, the company will take the productions on an international tour, including a return to the Watermill.

The current residency at the Old Vic follows West End seasons for two earlier, highly acclaimed Propeller productions: Rose Rage, a two-part adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy, at the Haymarket in 2002; and A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Comedy in 2003.

This time round, London critics were once again impressed with the versatility of Hall’s close-knit ensemble, with particular plaudits reserved for Simon Scardifield, Tam Williams, Jack Tarlton, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Tony Bell, a nominee for supporting performance last year in the non-Propeller revival of A Man for All Seasons (click here to vote now!). However, seeing the productions back-to-back on the two-play press day inevitably prompted comparisons to be drawn. By and large, critics felt that the company’s slapstick take on the Bard’s most controversial battle-of-the-sexes play, The Taming of the Shrew, was outshone by a funnier, tighter offering of Twelfth Night.

  • Maxwell Cooter on (Twelfth 3 stars, Shrew 2 stars) – “The final wedding scene (in The Taming of the Shrew) is one of the darkest I’ve seen with a Katherine close to tears as she delivers her final speech, with a final, despairing glance at her father…. Hall’s strength is in bringing out the slapstick elements of the play. He brings a sure comic touch to many of the scenes, especially the one where Petruchio’s servants await his arrival…. Twelfth Night is a play that lends itself naturally to an all-male production… The excellent Tony Bell’s downbeat and world-weary Feste sets the tone: his lugubrious presence hangs over the production. There’s also much use made of a white-masked chorus, observing the scenes, and adding vocal or instrumental accompaniment from time to time…. The letter scene is excellently done… And the scene where Malvolio reveals his yellow stockings and cross-garters is an excellent piece of theatre…. There are enough excellent performances throughout to ensure that this play never flags.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent – “Hall uses the all-male casting to hammer home the brutality of Petruchio's methods. Wearing little but cowboy boots and a Stetson when he shows up for his wedding, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's cocky, swaggering Petruchio is able to be as rough as he likes with Simon Scardifield's initially stroppy and increasingly withdrawn and depressed Kate. By the end, she resembles a battered wife, mouthing, with a sullen, faintly satiric edge, the letter but not the spirit of the submission speeches…. Some of the melancholic delicacy of Twelfth Night is lost in Hall's rather over-the-top production. But the single-sex casting undeniably intensifies the frissons of erotic ambiguity…. The versatility of the actors, though, is one of the great pleasures of the double bill, as is the terrific sense of a strongly bonded company.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (both 3 stars) – “Both their Shakespeare revivals contain funny moments and boast excellent performances, notably from a young actor called Simon Scardifield, who switches from a notably fierce Kate in The Taming of the Shrew to a hilariously feeble Aguecheek in Twelfth Night with the finesse of a fire-eater who can also juggle on the tightrope. But each production is over-busy, at times distractingly so…. Why are actors in half-masks forever eavesdropping on the speakers?... Why must the actors keep exiting through wardrobes?... Twelfth Night is a richer play and comes off better, thanks to Jack Tarlton’s rapturous Orsino, Tony Bell’s wry Feste, Jason Baughan’s peppy little satyr of a Belch and Scardifield as an Aguecheek as limited, good-natured and eager to please as Bertie Wooster at a Drones Club bread-throwing session…. But overall Tam Williams, who plays the disguised Viola, makes a plucky character too soft and tentative, and Bruce-Lockhart, who is now Olivia, does far too much precious wincing, arch wiggling and general palpitating.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “Working with a minimum of money and fuss, and a maximum of ingenuity and imagination, Propeller has become one of the finest and most distinctive acting ensembles in the country…. It is surprising how quickly you come to accept the convention of male actors playing women, and Propeller pulls off the trick with rare aplomb…. Simon Scardifield's brutalised, battered Kate is almost too painful to watch. With these chilling performances at the play's centre, the surrounding farcical comedy seems even less funny than usual. I have no reservations, however, about Propeller's Twelfth Night. Tam Williams makes a superbly androgynous, disconcertingly sexy Viola/Cesario, and the scenes of ambiguous desire with Jack Tarlton's Orsino are thrillingly played. And for once Viola's twin brother, Sebastian (Joe Flynn), looks uncannily like her, making the play's confusions seem completely plausible…. It's thrilling to watch the same actors tackling these two plays with such aplomb, but if you have to make a choice, opt for the ravishing Twelfth Night.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (Twelfth 4 stars, Taming 2 stars) – “Propeller scores a direct, gender-crossing hit with a magical, dream-struck Twelfth Night. The old-fashioned, slapstick The Taming of the Shrew flounders and flops, principally because Hall is uninterested in dealing with the sexual psychology that ranges Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's swaggering, macho-man Petruchio against Simon Scardifield's sulky Katherine in a vicious power game.… In Twelfth Night, lipsticked, eye-shadowed, high-heeled and earringed, swishing in a black cocktail dress, Bruce-Lockhart gloriously sets the comic and sexual standards by never succumbing to drag-queen excess. He, like the production itself, could do with more erotic thrust, but what a delicious, gentle pastiche of smitten femininity he achieves…. An atmosphere of magical, Pythonesque comedy and inspired knockabout prevails…. While Twelfth Night misses the final, high notes of ecstasy, The Taming of the Shrew remains stranded in vulgar bargain basement slapstick.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell & Terri Paddock