A new spin on Shakespeare

Propeller, theatre's celebrated all-male ensemble, has a reputation for witty, adventurous takes on the Bard. Alice Jones visits rehearsals for its latest double bill
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Girls!" shouts Ed Hall. "I need you over here." A strapping man in gold slingbacks, black socks and jeans stomps up-stage, followed by another, slightly stouter fellow, skittering in navy patent Mary Janes, a long white underskirt thrown on over his tracksuit bottoms. They're not your average Adriana and Luciana, but then this isn't your average Comedy of Errors. This is Shakespeare Propeller-style, which means that, among other things, it's performed by an all-male cast.

As the pair run through their opening scene in which they discuss the unequal lot of men and women – "Why should their liberty than ours be more?" – the strange novelty of the burly sisters quickly wears off. There's undoubtedly a pleasing frisson to hearing gender politics debated by two men in drag, but the overriding feeling is of a Shakespeare pulsing with muscular life – fresh, physical and utterly modern.

Which is to say, there's far more to Propeller than boys in high heels. Today, a brisk January morning, the company is rehearsing in a draughty community hall in south London and you can almost feel the Mediterranean sun on your face. A lone twin straps on a fluorescent bumbag, an accordionist ambles around and cast members loll about, beating out a sultry bossa nova rhythm on whatever instrument comes to hand. And everyone, but everyone, is wearing mirrored Aviator shades. Welcome to the Costa del Ephesus, 80s party island and hot-spot for hi-jinks, where sunstroke and one too many pina coladas have left everyone seeing double.

It's a typically witty, imaginative world for the company, which has previously set The Merchant of Venice in a macho prison block, thrown Viola and Andrew Aguecheek into a boxing ring in Twelfth Night and drenched the stage in blood and animal remains for its telescoped version of the Henry VI plays, Rose Rage. Transporting The Comedy of Errors to a package-holiday destination where woozy, boozy licence reigns makes (at least a little) sense of Shakespeare's most improbable plot. The look is big hair and neon, the soundtrack cheesy nightclub, the energy higher than a holiday rep's at the start of the season. And there's no let-up: in the interval, a rag-tag band will busk disco classics – from an a capella "Billie Jean" to Gloria Estefan mariachi-style on the tuba – to raise money for charity.

The production will run in rep with Propeller's new Richard III, an altogether less sunny proposition. The setting here is a gothic Victorian hospital, the aesthetic Grand-Guignol/ Hammer horror with murderers dressed like music-hall turns and a chorus of sinister orderlies. In his lunch break, Hall shows me some pictures on his laptop. "That's Edward just before he dies and sprays blood everywhere. That's a murderer drilling an eye out. That's the death of Clarence – he's drowning him in a vat of Malmsey there," says Hall, dreamily. "We've tried to reflect what's in the play – a mix of appalling violence and dark, ironic humour. A woman behind me at one of the previews stood up in the interval and said, 'I don't know why, but I'm smiling'. It was at that moment that I thought we were starting to get the tone of the play right."

Propeller began life in 1997 at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury when Hall first tested out his new-style Shakespeare – using classical traditions but incorporating a modern aesthetic – on a production of Henry V. It's stuck to the same principles ever since. "We try and treat it as a new text," he says. "Don't come into the room with a history of productions down the ages. Try and come at things absolutely afresh."

This impulse is perhaps more pressing for the director as the son of Peter Hall, founder of the RSC and venerated interpreter of the Bard for over half a century. Aged 80, he's still going strong with a new Twelfth Night at the National Theatre starring Ed's half sister, Rebecca. "We see each other's work and talk to each other about it. It's always helpful. He is brilliant at that. I haven't been into any of Pa's rehearsals for Twelfth Night, though. We're all too busy," says Hall. The last time father and son worked together was on a nine-hour epic production of Tantalus at the Denver Centre. "That left a few bodies by the wayside."

The all-male cast remains Propeller's most distinctive calling card, harking back to a time when women were banned from the stage, while casting the classics in a new light. "I've always felt Shakespeare wrote with it in mind when you read his comments about sexual politics and sexuality," says Hall. "When Viola in Twelfth Night says 'I am not what I am' and it's a boy playing a girl, disguised as a boy, you somehow capture the spirit at the centre of the play." There's none of the knowing camp of the drag act to Propeller's females, though. In its Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania was played by Richard Dempsey, "all 6ft 2in of him, with a hairy chest and scary make-up."

"If you're playing a character that's the same sex as you or not, you have to ask the same questions – how do they walk, how do they sound, what are they scared of, what do they love, what are they trying to hide, what are their objectives? The one thing you mustn't do is try to present what you think a woman is," says Hall. "Robert Hands is no more like Adriana than he is like Hamlet. He's playing a character. You're just more aware of it. It's all part and parcel of the leap of imagination that you take when you sit down to watch a play."

In addition to donning bustles and heels, the cast is involved in every aspect of the production – moving the scenery, making sound effects, choreographing dances and fights and providing the music. Pacey, physical and highly theatrical, there are no easy parts. One of the twins, Sam Swainsbury, has his arm in a sling – the result of being thrown repeatedly into a wheelie bin during an earlier rehearsal. If an actor has Grade 3 trumpet or can play the spoons, chances are Hall will find a way to use his skills. For the rest, it's a matter of grabbing a slide whistle, a pair of wood blocks or a xylophone and pitching in. When it's decided that a cockerel crow is the best way to start the morning in Ephesus, someone leaps in immediately with his best barnyard impression from the wings. Off-stage is an alien concept in a Propeller production.

This busy, multi-tasking approach builds an ensemble that is unusually tight-knit – and Hall keeps it that way by offering actors a part in Propeller's next production automatically, as a reward for their efforts. "We argue like mad about what part that might be, but I can't sack anybody," says Hall. "None of this is contractual, but we've done this for years and it's worked very well. It seemed to me important to give a sense of ownership to people." Unsurprisingly, turnover is pretty slow – one actor, Chris Myles, hasn't missed a show in 13 years. Any newcomers, on the other hand, must subscribe to Propeller's "work of each for wheel of all" ethic. "Their focus has to be outward-looking. If people do that, everything functions. If they don't, if there's a sniff of self-interest, people leave very rapidly."

Hall has brought the same collegiate ethos to Hampstead Theatre, where he is now one year into his artistic directorship. Highlights so far have included new plays by Athol Fugard and Nina Raine and a deliciously wicked Christmas show written by Carol Ann Duffy, while 2011 brings the return of Mike Leigh, directing his 1979 play Ecstasy, a new royal drama by Howard Brenton and visits from both the RSC and Propeller. Hall has also opened up the smaller downstairs studio as a "laboratory", staging brand new work from Lucy Kirkwood and David Eldridge, directed by Katie Mitchell and Kathy Burke respectively.

In the meantime, though, Hall has an unruly cast of cross-dressing men to tame. A comic scene involving six domed silver platters and a slap-happy exchange between Adriana and her servant Dromio is endlessly played out until everyone is happy and has had their input. It's noisy, exhausting and a little chaotic, but Hall remains in benevolent control throughout. The end result is comedy that feels as though it was written yesterday. "I believe in directing you have to have a plan that will deliver the play if no-one has any ideas," says Hall, quietly. "Then you get into a rehearsal room and things start to change."



'The Comedy of Errors' and 'Richard III', Sheffield Lyceum (0114 249 6000; www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk) to 29 January; then touring to 23 July ( www.propeller.org.uk)

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