Victoria Laurie - ABC
When audience members saunter back to their seats after interval in Henry V, actors from the UK's Propellor company greet them from onstage as they lounge about strumming guitars, or adjusting costumes. There's a cheerful wave from a young man preening at his mirror; his chalked face and bodiced gown indicate that he is playing Katherine, King Henry's love interest from conquered France.
You'd swear you'd just blundered into the actors' dressing room, moments before curtain up. In fact the feeling of intimacy is akin to what Elizabethan theatre-goers must have experienced in Shakespeare's day. The barrier between the Bard's players and their audience was paper-thin, their props sparse and means limited.
Musical interludes were commonplace, from madrigals to the latest dirty ditties, so Propellor's heavy use of music (all composed, arranged and played on stage by cast members) is equally fitting. Men played women's parts in Shakespeare's day, hence the sight of Propellor actor Karl Davies with rosebud lips and a boy's crewcut.
This might be a good place to get Propellor's all male emphasis out of the way. Firstly, it was a relief to me that no campy panto dames made an appearance. Quite the contrary, women's roles are treated with dignity and aplomb. Take Paulina, a gentlewoman in The Winter's Tale; heel-wearing actor Vince Leigh towers over Leontes, King of Sicily, as she stands, hands folded, making a dignified plea for her maligned mistress and Leontes' wife, Hermoine (a fragile, pregnant figure played empathetically by Richard Dempsey).
Does the men-impersonating-women act add enlightenment? No more or less than Cate Blanchett playing Richard the Second in Sydney Theatre Company's celebrated War of the Roses. Their persuasiveness depends entirely on an actor's skill in getting beneath a character's skin, irrespective of gender.
I suspect Perth audiences will like the kind of heady, fast-paced Shakespeare that the UK-based Propellor has brought to Perth. In particular, Henry V's bloody war theme is well-suited to a testosterone-pumped troupe of fit young men. And while the analogies to British army soldiers are strong - combat gear, spectacular fight scenes staged to the sound of machine guns - Propellor never loses sight of the fact that Shakespeare's rhyming prose are the star.
Director Edward Hall frames the words in perfect context; in some ways, he rescues scenes that might be overlooked (such as the insult of a frivolous gift delivered to Henry from the French King) and gives them new clarity and focus. If the 'big' speeches from Henry ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends") seem less stirring than in more grandiose 'stand-and-deliver' productions, there are compensations.
The Winter's Tale is a study in inventive staging; the two halves of this uneven play - part-morality tale, part bawdy comedy - are unashamedly different and Hall dresses them in different clothes. The austere, sad atmosphere of Leontes' tyrannous court is pure Prada, while the ebullient joy of Bohemia, the faraway land to which Leontes' victims have fled, calls for mini-skirts and leather pants.
If you're looking for a reason to see The Winter's Tale, which after all is considered one of his lesser plays, here's the excuse. Every Propellor actor is a born comic, and the sheep-bleating, caftan-wearing, drug-addled groupies who've turned up for a rural Love-In are simply hilarious. Go and see it; you'll whisper a prayer of thanks for Will Shakespeare's well-developed funny bone.