Edward Hall on Propeller's Henry V and The Winter's Tale
Edward Hall: I always call Propeller the accidental theatre company. It started simply because of a desire of mine to explore Shakespeare in a slightly different way to the one I felt I was expected to.
I directed a production of Othello about 15 years ago at the Watermill (Theatre, Newbury), produced by Jill Fraser, who was then the artistic director. When I reflected on the work it felt slightly like I’d tried to deliver somehow what was ‘expected’ of me.
I felt constricted by the indoor theatre, unable to properly explore and release the energy of the writing. So I thought I would try it again, but this time be a little bit more extreme. I would use an all-male cast because that was the traditional way of approaching the play. I’d ask the actors to make the music and do the scene changes and give as much of the ‘creation’ of the production to the performers as I possibly could.
So everything we did was essentially in the actors’ hands. If you like, I was taking away a few of the modern gifts of the theatre and stripping things back a bit. I was hoping to be more imaginative in a metaphorical sense, and therefore hoping to engage the audience’s imagination in sometimes surprising ways.
I wanted to turn our productions into an event, so we played music in the interval as well. We tried to make the performance experience begin for the audience as soon as they walked into the theatre.
It was a big success, and I did it with a fairly random group of actors who I chose because I thought they would be good (for that show).
And because it was a success, we decided to do it again on another play, and then that was a success so we did it a third time, by which point I said to Jill Fraser “We should have a name, shouldn’t we?”. So we came up with the name ‘Propeller’, which one of the actors coined in a coffee break. I said “It has to be something that has a good feel – it’s about feel. It’s not about meaning, it’s just about feel.” And the word felt right to all of us.
I can picture exactly the moment it happened – it was Johnny McGuinness who said it over a cup of coffee and I could tell you, if we were back in that little room, where we were sitting when he said it. And we felt ‘That’s it. That’s the word. That’s the word that describes what we’re trying to do’. So ‘Propeller’ stuck. It became the word that we used to describe what we were doing.
After that, it seemed to me important that the actors, because of the way they were working and making the performances, owned a little bit more of the company than they might normally do in any other job.
It felt like something special. I wanted to keep it special and I wanted to keep it an actors’ company. I suppose partly, subconsciously, in the tradition of Shakespeare’s actors’ companies. They didn’t even have directors in those days. Directors are a modern affectation. So I said to the actors, if you’re in an original production with Propeller then you’ll get an offer on the next production.
I gave myself a slight headache in casting, because I’d have a group of people I’d have to go to first. But it also meant that, if they did well, and we had a success and we created another opportunity, it wasn’t something I was taking away from them. They, theoretically, would benefit from that, having the offer of another job, and more doors opening et cetera.
That’s how it’s worked. It hasn’t really changed much over fifteen years. We’ve got bigger, in terms of infrastructure, and now we’re sending sets all over the world, but the basic core idea of what we do and how we do it has remained the same.
And over fifteen years, fewer than 50 actors have worked with the company. Although that may sound like quite a high number, it’s not when you think that there are fourteen actors in each show, and that we produce two shows each year to eighteen months. It’s just evolved over the years with the various things we’ve done.
Did you always want an all-male cast doing Shakespeare?
EH: I often get asked ‘Why do you do all-male Shakespeare’. It’s simply because that’s how they used to be produced. People have rightly pointed out that the experience for the audience of the actors would be completely different now to then and of course, it would be, but there are still sometimes some interesting moments created by the single gender casting. When Viola (in Twelfth Night) says “I am not what I am” and it’s a man playing a girl disguised as a boy, you are made suddenly aware of the sexual confusion that is at the heart of the play.
When an actor plays Hamlet or an actress Ophelia, the actress playing Ophelia is no more like Ophelia than the (male) actor would be playing Hamlet. With cross gender casting you just become more aware of the action of acting because there’s a gender jump.
How do you go about cross-casting the two groups of actors in Propeller shows?
EH: Cross-casting Propeller shows is always quite complicated, because one has one group of actors and two plays and you’re trying to do two things.
Firstly, you’re trying to make a community that is credible within the play. All the actors relative to each other will make the story work. You won’t cast someone six foot three as Hermia, because Hermia is short, so you have to get the relativity of everyone correct in a group.
Secondly, you also have to give the actors different experiences in the two plays they’re doing. That’s one of the reasons I think the work stays fresh when we go on a ten month tour, because people play very different parts in the two plays.
Because of the semi permanent nature of the company, casting is often as creative as the performances themselves. Would you ever cast the man who played Richard III (Richard Clothier) as Titania? No. But it works incredibly well because of the relative dynamics in the group and it’s perfectly possible because the actor concerned made that transforming jump between those two parts. That becomes a very interesting part sometimes of watching the actors perform two plays.
Is there a way in which you pick the two plays that you do? Do they deliberately contrast or match?
EH: The decision-making process for picking both plays is always different actually.
I will usually pick the plays individually and then I will look at how they relate to each other and decide if that will work. I imagine somebody coming in to see the matinee and the evening - what will that experience be?
Invariably it’s not the sameness that is interesting or the similarities, it’s the difference that is always so startling and surprising within Shakespeare’s work.
We did Comedy of Errors and Richard III, and you wouldn’t imagine the same person had written both those two plays. For me that particular pairing was about diametrically opposed styles of writing - one a comedy, one a tragedy. The great tragedy having a lot of comedy in it, and the great comedy actually having a very soulful, tragic tone running underneath it; albeit we buried it rather deeply at times with some of our antics, but nonetheless it is there.
Henry V is a very direct piece of writing, it was written in 1599 at the end of a decade when England was full of patriotism and xenophobia; the country was feeling very good about itself. We’d kicked the Spanish back home in 1588 in the Armada and we were all feeling… sort of the equivalent of winning the World Cup fifty times every year. People felt really good about being English, and Shakespeare wrote this huge patriotic play about one of the great heroes of English history. It’s a very direct, very bold piece of writing; very uncomplicated in many respects.
The Winter’s Tale, which was written some years later is very different. It’s written for an indoor theatre for a start and therefore has a very different style being designed as it was, to be played in a quieter more intimate space in front of a wealthier audience. The language creates the psychology of the characters in a more delicate way and the play also uses special effects. I always wonder what really happened on stage at the moment I read the famous famous stage direction ‘Exeunt pursued by a bear’?
Specifically on Henry V and this idea of Englishness, was there a sense of modern day Englishness you want to appeal to in this play?
I like Henry V because it’s about nationalism, about coming together as a community. It’s about coming together as a group of people in adversity and overcoming against enormous odds – and it’s war that brings us together. This remains true today but it is always a hard thing to rationalize. That is the great contradiction of the play. In some senses one of the great strengths of our country is its cultural diversity and the play celebrates this.
Shakespeare examines several very interesting topics in Henry V, the nature of war, how war starts and the stresses of leadership. Not only Henry in the case of Henry V, but also in the French King who is portrayed as a man who remembers the past, and remembers the wars of the past and is very reticent to get involved in this war. It’s his son the Dauphin who is a young hot-head, who keeps sending tennis balls and jibes to Henry and wants a fight. But the man who actually has his finger on the button takes the responsibility completely differently.
What starts as a very passionate, very jingoistic story about a battle where we know the outcome, evolves into something much deeper. It’s intensely moving when you hear how many of the French are dead.
Henry himself is cast as a man full of doubt, full of fear, full of conflict, who doesn’t know how to relate to God, but who is supposedly carrying out God’s will. He’s a confused jihadist if you like, who doesn’t quite know how to execute his responsibility whilst keeping a moral centre. I wonder how our contemporary leaders take the responsibility of blood on their hands?
The opening scene has obvious contemporary resonances, was this on your mind when you were directing it?
EH: The politics of Henry V are very interesting. Henry’s concerned at the beginning about whether he has a right, or indeed an obligation, to take France, and he asks the Archbishop of Canterbury as his chief spiritual voice to advise him. Canterbury launches into a huge explanation about something called the Salic Law, and blinds Henry with as much science as he possibly can, in order to get him to say “Yes, we will go to war”; and to accept, effectively, a bribe from the Church which will prevent Henry from taxing the Church in order to pay for the campaign. In effect, they are arguing about the need for a war and who is going to pay for it. Sound familiar..?
And you’ve had the Army in, training you?
EH: Yes. I thought with Henry V we ought to get a little bit of experience of what it might be like to train. So we engaged the services of the British Army who’ve been training us three times a week, taking us up to Clapham Common and doing fitness training, doing team building exercises, teaching us how to run forward under fire, crawl, rescuing injured people from the field.
It’s been really good just to get a sense of how focused you have to be when you’re in that situation. Sometimes we had two or three of them screaming at us in one go and they’ve been great. It’s been a good, visceral, unintellectual way of bonding.
The Winter’s Tale is not a play you often see performed; do you think there is a reason for that or is there a reason that you wanted to re-visit your production of it?
EH: At the moment, The Winter’s Tale is not one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays. I think it’s fashion rather than anything else.
If you look back over the last hundred years, you can see that in the Nineteenth Century, the history plays were performed very rarely. Once we got to the First and Second World Wars, they became very popular again.
I came to the play circuitously through Othello which is partly about jealously but it’s quite confused and doesn’t find its centre until Act Four. What fascinated me about The Winter’s Tale is that it deals with pure, unadulterated, unmotivated jealousy, that could strike anybody, out of the blue; and jealousy in itself should be something completely inexplicable, by its very definition.
You have a handful of lines before Leontes says ‘too hot, too hot’ and no sub current of anxiety. In the very opening of the play you see two great friends, two Kings. One is trying to persuade the other to stay a little longer. His wife is pregnant, and it feels very relaxed and domestic and easy; and suddenly one of them turns around and says “my heart ‘s dancing a bit, I just saw the way he took my wife’s hand and I’m jealous”.
It’s an exploration of what can happen to somebody when they fall foul of inexplicable jealously and when that person happens to be in a very powerful position. Because Leontes is in such a powerful position, his jealously destroys an entire country. Not just him and his family, but it destroys everybody and everything around him. I found the purity of that fascinating; very uncomplicated, one idea that then gave birth to this extraordinarily powerful first half of a fairy-tale.
The title The Winter’s Tale I always think is the Elizabethan way of saying, ‘this is the ultimate fire-side story’. People used to call a story that they would tell each other in the depths of Winter ‘a winter’s tale’: “Let’s have a winter’s tale’, ‘shall we sit down and have a Winter’s tale’? And I think The Winter’s Tale is the ultimate version of this.
Then in the middle you switch beautifully to another country called Bohemia which was famous for magic, and for fairy stories. It doesn’t have a sea coast in real life - it’s landlocked - but Shakespeare gave it a sea coast.
Shakespeare switches the action and starts a whole separate story completely. It’s a bravura piece of writing; any script editor would not let you do that now, they’d say “No, no this isn’t quite right, you can’t suddenly move sixteen years on to another country, with a whole set of new characters.
There’s a mixture of great tragedy comedies, The play then finishes with one of the most extraordinary endings in drama which leaves you with a lasting memory.
How are you planning to stage it? Where are you setting it?
EH: I’m setting the first half of The Winter’s Tale in Sicilia in an idea of a modern Italy, so very beautiful clothes, very elegant. Most of it happens at night actually, apart from the trial. It will be contemporary in feel, but lots of candle light. It won’t be mobile phones and electricity, it’ll be candle light and people playing pianos to each other in the evening. We’ll be in modern day to do that, and candlelight and romance and loveliness, and when we go to Bohemia, the centre of Bohemia is a pastoral scene.
When I say pastoral, I mean it’s the annual sheep-shearing country fair of a community of people who celebrate the harvest, and we’ve imagined that this is a little community that you would discover somewhere in the West Country if you walked through the right hedge at the right moment. Rather like walking through that wall on that platform to discover the train to Hogwarts, they’ll go through that little gate and there they’ll be. Like a very naive, guileless, mini-Glastonbury, this group of people coming together, camping and making their own little enclave for a few days while they celebrate their year’s end; and play music and eat and drink, and just detach themselves from the world for a little bit. All those festivals have that feel, but there’s a wonderful innocence to it which is very important, and that’s where we’ll be taking Bohemia.
Into that walks a character called Autolycus who is like the snake in the Garden of Eden. He just exploits everyone, like a sort of dreadful, slightly weathered, ageing lothario pop star who only wants to steal and exploit people’s stupidity. It’s not enough for him just to steal something from you, he wants to do it so you almost help it to happen, just to illustrate what a stupid idiot you are, and also to make himself feel good when underneath it he knows he’s a coward and a liar.
Then at the end of the play the two worlds collide, back in Sicilia which in the interim has become I think a cold, desolate place, snowbound; and you finish in a magical gallery full of stars with a statue.
Is touring your plays a key part of Propeller? Why do you tour so much?
EH: Touring has always been a thing that we love doing - it’s been how the company began. We used to put our sets into flight cases and push them through airport terminals as excess baggage, the sets were that small and that light.
The experience of putting these plays and any play in front of a different audience every week is extraordinarily invigorating. Sometimes not because of the difference in the reactions, but because you find you get the same laugh in Jakarta that you got in Swindon, and you wonder how that could be possible. You become aware of something we all share, regardless of where and who we are.
It’s fascinating to do that - to take the work we’re doing to as many different corners of the world as possible in front of as many different groups of people. It keeps informing what we do. It keeps us fresh, if you like.
It’s always been at the centre of the activity and I think will always be at the centre of Propeller.