Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Edward Hall
Reviewer: Peter Jacobs
Propeller is an all male Shakespeare company that for 15 years has been bringing an investigative approach to the text mixed with a modern physical aesthetic. Director Edward Hall rejects the notion that Propeller make Shakespeare accessible as if the plays need ‘dumbing down’ to make them comprehensible to modern audiences. What Propeller do achieve is to make Shakespeare accessible by taking the material, giving it a good shake and presenting fantastically well realised modern theatre. The text, on the whole, survives unscathed but the company bring it to life by exploring character, the narrative richness of the stories and adding top of the range production values to make this 400-year-old material seem fresh, relevant, exciting, complex and ‘modern’.
Written around the same time as Hamlet, Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare’s most entertaining and easily understood comedies, full of sparkling dialogue and with a tale of love, loss, gender confusion and cruelty set in the slightly otherworldly land of Illyria following a shipwreck that sees twin brother and sister Viola (Joseph Chance) and Sebastian (Dan Wheeler) separated and left to fend for themselves and unexpectedly finding love with the ‘wrong’ people. Disguised as a man for safety, Viola finds herself at the court of the genial Count Orsino – handsomely played by Christopher Heyward. Unexpectedly drawn to the young man who is really a woman (played by a man), Orsino tasks Viola – now called Cesario – with making a suit of love to Olivia, a local noblewoman he has not met but is in love with and desires for his wife. Unfortunately, Olivia, mourning the loss of her father and brother, has foresworn the attentions of men and wanders her stately palace in widow’s weeds – until she sees the fair Cesario. And the confusion begins.
The comedy is provided by her drunken uncle Sir Toby Belch (Vince Leigh), her fool Feste (Liam O’Brien) and Sir Toby’s equally drunken idiot friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (John Dougall) – who also fancies himself a suitor to Olivia. Order within the household is loosely maintained by Olivia’s gentlewoman Maria – hilariously created by Gary Shelford – and her steward Malvolio (Chris Myles), a man characterised by pomposity and foolishness, who falls victim to a cruel prank. The cast are superb to a man. A silent chorus of ‘Zanies’ – who also provide music and occasional sound effects – lurk around the house, populating each scene almost unseen, creating a strange sense of unease in this house of limbo.
The production design is outstanding and rather beautiful. Michael Pavelka’s sets are atmospheric and evocative, cleverly creating distinctive spaces for each scene. This is richly enhanced by Ben Ormerod’s lighting design, relit for touring by Tom White. This is a production that pulls all the detail and character from the language and plot and vividly brings it to life in a modern way that is funny, precise, beautifully judged and timed and fantastically entertaining. This is Shakespeare done with energy, passion, skill, love and inpressive modern theatrical skill. It loves Shakespeare without being too reverential or afraid to play around with it, but without that sense you sometimes get with Shakespeare productions that it must be updated at all costs. If Propeller are always this good then they should be in everyone’s diary for an annual visit.