David Jays - The Sunday Times
It isn’t a line you expect to hear in a rehearsal for The Winter’s Tale: “Let’s just run the Donna Summer moment again.” It’s not only disco classics; you also don’t expect a riotous version of Beyoncé’s Single Ladies routine, in which dirty dancing becomes an uninhibited catfight. As the all-male cast runs through Shakespeare’s raucous rural festival, an actor I last saw as Henry V swaps his throne for a drum kit, the backing singers give it their best whoop and everyone swaps sheep impressions. “Blimey,” says the director, Edward Hall. “Where to go from there?”
It is a question many ask about Propeller, the all-male Shakespeare company that, from casual beginnings 15 years ago, has become one of Britain’s most admired troupes. I’m tagging along as the company takes Henry V to a festival in Girona, northern Spain. Propeller has an exuberant international fan base. “To me, they’re like an explosion,” says the Italian theatre producer Giuliana Gratton, who has presented several of the company’s shows. “The power and discipline of their work — there is nothing like it.” In Girona, Henry V is certainly powerful, the energy direct and accessible. They never shy away from darkness and ambiguity. Even Henry’s victory at Agincourt isn’t triumphal: the production insists that peace is merely a phase he’s going through. An attentive Spanish audience erupts in applause, bringing the cast back for seven curtain calls.
At the centre of a hard-working cast, Dugald Bruce Lockhart makes a sombre, impatient king. He rouses the troops, but you won’t like him when he’s angry. Despite Propeller’s accessible style and gift for lads-together mayhem, Hall’s productions embrace the plays’ shadows. Even in the Glasto-style jollies of The Winter’s Tale, his notes are all about truculent relationships and mean motives. As for Henry V (the two plays are on tour together), “I feel it’s an honest depiction of what war’s like”, Hall explains. “It’s not heroic. The real Henry was a butcher, and the aftermath of Agincourt is organised looting.”
Henry V was the company’s first production, in 1997. “It was a show I wanted to do,” Hall says as we wait at Girona airport. “Naturalistic indoor theatre isn’t what it was written for — I wanted to unshackle myself from the constraints of modern convention.” The bullish theatricality immediately engaged audiences. “I enjoyed it,” Hall says. “I wanted to do it again, with the same actors. We just went on from there.” Propeller has since won acclaim with twisty problem plays, including a jailhouse Merchant of Venice, and gory history plays, heavy on the butchery. Rose Rage, a blood-spattered distillation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy (“The history plays without a whiff of history”), sealed the company’s reputation with a West End run in 2002. Now that Hall is artistic director at the Hampstead Theatre, his company has a regular London venue — last year, Richard III and The Comedy of Errors went great guns.
The blokey ethos dominates thinking about Propeller, especially the guying of femininity. They can tend to squeak and simper when playing Shakespeare’s ladies, but one of the few women in the company, the husky-voiced executive producer, Caro MacKay, argues that a male cast unearths unsentimental grit in these roles. The Taming of the Shrew, she insists, allowed “freedom to make it as horrible as the words are”. Hall relates the signature casting to the robust refusal of artifice in the storytelling. (The royal lady-in-waiting in Henry V is the stocky Chris Myles, with a thin tache on his upper lip.) This is no drag act, but performance without pretence.
Everyone emphasises how democratic Propeller’s rehearsals are — all ideas are welcomed, improvements encouraged — but when Hall ambles in, bearing his wife’s fruitcake, there is little doubt who’s boss, especially when it comes to mining the text. As many people remark, he increasingly resembles his father, the Shakespeare purist Peter Hall. Quietly but eloquently, he excavates a pivotal scene in which the disguised prince Florizel’s romantic plans are crumbling. The text is a thicket of half lines, missing beats, tongue-twisting declamation. “It’s fiendish,” Myles whispers. Hall’s approach is acutely analytic: there’s a lot of thought in the room.
Thought mingles with fun, on stage and off. Especially in the early days, before families and maturity kicked in, Hall says: “We worked hard and played hard”. Bruce Lockhart describes the early seasons as “a 10-month stag weekend combined with a football tour”, and the hedonistic flame still flickers. Previously in Girona, he tangled with the local cops — he is coy about the details. (“No damage was done, except to my liver.”) Dominic Thorburn, a muscly 22-year-old, is the company’s youngest member, obsessed by the Bourne movies, and star pupil during fitness training. He’s one of six newbies who have assumed the hell-raising mantle. “See you at breakfast,” I say to Finn Hanlon, a Devonian, one evening. “Oh, I don’t think so,” he replies, rocking off into the Spanish night. (He later loses his passport and misses the flight home.)
Hanlon also embraces another company tradition — sacrificing the interval to busk in the foyer for charity (£22,000 was raised for Save the Children last year). His father runs this year’s good cause, Lifeworks, for children with learning difficulties. I’m moved by the sheer vim with which the cast rouse a bemused Spanish crowd to clap along and spill their euros.
The Propeller cast will automatically be included in the next season, unless they decide to leave. In effect, they have to sack themselves — a unique way of working, sealed by an old-school gentlemen’s agreement. No wonder only 49 actors have performed with the company in 15 years: the newbies can’t believe their luck. Two of their peers were in Hall’s first Henry V: Myles, a Propeller stalwart who hasn’t missed a single performance; and Tony Bell, who equally epitomises the company’s spirit. Cast as Fluellen, he stayed with the company for its first six seasons, returning after a break last year. In rehearsal for The Winter’s Tale, he unleashes a thieving, rooster-strutting Autolycus, a raddled rocker in a long fur coat like a massacre of rabbits.
What makes Propeller remarkable isn’t merely its work, but its ethos. “It’s important to me that you’re good at being a human being as well as an actor,” Hall remarks at the airport. It works: I’ve never met a warmer, matier group of strangers. Nick Chesterfield, the unflusterable company manager, suggests that blokes cope well with the “fractious environment” of a long tour. “People have disagreements, they may come close to fisticuffs,” he muses, “but the tension gets lanced. There’s more of a sense of things festering in mixed companies.” Where to go from here? Hall plans to look beyond Shakespearian gore and guffaw, to “apply the way we tell stories” to adaptations of classic tales and a commission by Mark Ravenhill. It’s a bold move, but Hall describes it with calm assurance: “When we get bored, we’ll stop.”