Almost from the moment these two plays begin, you recognise that you're experiencing something very different - almost radically so - from what one might describe as 'traditional' Shakespeare. But it's much harder to define exactly what it is about the approach of innovative acting company 'Propeller' that makes their work totally riveting and compelling, as well as hugely enjoyable.
It's certainly not just the excellent acting - there are heaps of other shows that have that - and it's not just a striking set, fine music and singing, or even creative innovation. For once, I almost find myself at a loss for words in trying to define what it is in their work that makes these plays really sing out. But they do – and in the very best possible sense. So much so that The Old Vic has got two real winners on its hands right now. In my humble opinion, 'Taming of the Shrew' and 'Twelfth Night' have to be two of the most enjoyable and captivating Shakespearian productions that I've seen in some time. Stimulating, energetic, and at times hilariously raucous they not only provide accessible theatre to draw in new audiences, but will reinvigorate Shakespeare's work for regular theatre goers too.
There are some differences that make Propeller stand out as a company. First, it's an all-male outfit, so that, as in Shakespeare's day, all the parts are played by men. This gives an added dimension to the identity switching in 'Twelfth Night', because here you have a man, playing a woman, pretending to be a man. Confused? You won't be, because Propeller handle it all in their stride.
The second thing which makes Propeller's productions different is that all the cast seem to be competent musicians. Trombones, cellos, guitars, flutes etc all make appearances played by the cast, who also supply the eerie and haunting sounds effects to boot.
These two Shakespearian comedies have much in common though they were written almost a decade apart. In 'The Taming of the Shrew', several suitors are swarming like bees round honey pot Bianca the daughter of Baptista, a wealthy merchant. But Baptista has a big headache. His elder daughter, Katherine, is a fearsome wench who is more likely to beat the living daylights out of any suitor, rather than warm to their amorous advances. Baptista decides that he won't allow Bianca to be married off unless he can find a suitable match for Kate. Thus the suitors spawn various ploys to try and win their prize. And a newcomer to the town, Petruchio, is seconded to 'tame the shrew' in a manner which still leaves many to question the social acceptability of the piece.
In 'Twelfth Night', Viola and her twin brother Sebastian are separated when shipwrecked in a storm. Viola assumes the disguise of a man and enters the service of love-sick Duke Orsino whose advances towards the beautiful and wealthy Olivia have met with rejection because she's in mourning for her brother. Orsino finds he's strangely attracted to Viola (now disguised as Cesario) and sends him (her!) off to communicate his affections to Olivia. But Olivia also finds Cesario attractive, and asks him (her!) to keep returning for more discussions in spite of her disinterest in Orsino's romantic proposals. In the meantime, Olivia's household is beset by drunkenness in the form of Sir Toby Belch and his naïve and cowardly side-kick,Sir Andrew Agucheek, who take it upon themselves (abetted by Olivia's maid, Maria, and her fool, Feste) to play an extremely cruel joke on Olivia's pompous steward, Malvolio.
Most striking among a versatile and extremely talented cast was Tony Bell as a dour but forthright, money-grabbing fool; Jason Baughan as the debauched Sir Toby (who quite literally vomits his way through the show); and Dugald Bruce-Lockhart who appears as the swaggering shrew tamer, and also as an Olivia almost fainting with sexual desire. And Chris Myles provided an unrepentantly conniving Maria complete with slicked-back hair and the gait of a cocktail waitress. But singling out actors for special mention takes nothing away from a highly confident cast who showed no sign of being compromised when faced with the hallowed boards of The Old Vic, and the scrutinising notables in the audience.
Michael Pavelka's excellent set design is intriguingly versatile and extremely interesting. Two main features are what appear to be mobile wardrobes that not only serve as hiding places, but also stand in for houses or taverns, as well as general exits and entrances. In 'Twelfth Night', Pavelka's set starts off mysteriously shrouded in dust sheets, which are peeled away almost like a time-warp being undone, or a dream (or reality) being revealed.
One conceptual element in Propeller's 'special' treatment of Shakespeare's work is that many of the cast are present in the background while the main action is taking place. Sometimes, they are playing instruments, but often they appear like ghostly apparitions watching over events. It's an interesting effect which provides a second level of action. It's certainly true that director Edward Hall and his company have taken some liberties, but they've not sacrificed respect for the text in stamping their own mark on the work. In fact the carefully planned business, delivery and gestures suggest a deep understanding of Shakespeare's text and the motivations of the characters.
Of these two excellent shows, I enjoyed and laughed more at the highly entertaining (and somewhat slapstick) 'Shrew', but found more depth and subtlety in 'Twelfth Night'. But maybe that's exactly as it should be, because 'Taming of the Shrew' was written by a young playwright, finding his feet and testing out his skills, whereas by the time he'd got round to 'Twelfth Night' he was an accomplished and successful writer approaching his prime.
However, there's no need for Propeller to find their feet – they know exactly where they are, and exactly where they're going. Just make sure you get your feet in motion and catch these two highly recommended plays before they slide off on tour.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "It scores a direct, gender-crossing hit with a magical, dream-struck Twelfth Night. The old-fashioned, slapstick Taming Of The Shrew flounders and flops." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "Contain funny moments and boast excellent performances...But each production is overbusy, at times distractingly so." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for GUARDIAN says, "The sublime Twelfth Night far exceeds the coarse Shrew; and not just because it is the better play, but because it is ideally suited to Propeller's fascination with dreams and sexual ambivalence."
A review of The Taming of the Shrew
by Chloe Preece
The Taming of the Shrew, despite being a comedy, is considered one of Shakespeare’s more difficult plays to bring to the stage because of the controversy it raises over its portrayal of the subjugation of the once strong-willed and fiery Kate by Petruchio. Indeed, the misogynistic display of masculinity in the play is sometimes hard for a modern audience to accept. This version of the play, however, cleverly steers clear of this pitfall by using a version of the play that frames the story within the dream of the drunken Sly. This allows the audience to dismiss the dark underbelly of this play as the drunken delusions of Sly, indeed, the play ends with one of the characters telling him “this was but a play.” This interpretation of the play also brings together what in many other performances are two disjointed plots, so that they flow effortlessly into each other. What could have been a confusing transformation as Sly slips into the character of Petruchio, is here made to seem natural as we see him being prompted by the other players until he eventually immerses himself fully into the narrative. In the end what we see is a scathing account of manners and marriage, as men and women’s roles are stripped bare (this subject matter takes on an added dimension in the context of the all-male cast), while the whole question of whether Shakespeare meant the play to be taken at face value or not, is neatly side-stepped, making the play infinitely more enjoyable.
Shakespeare is always at its best when it allows for interaction between the performers and the audience. The Propeller Theatre Company understand this and have no qualms about mixing with the audience: making full use of the whole theatre, chatting to the audience in the stalls before the play starts and at times joining them during the play. Whilst we wait for everyone to shuffle in and take their seats, Christopher Sly lies on the stage completely inebriated, winking at chosen members of the audience, and so the entertainment starts. This complicity functions as good comic relief, as the solemnity of certain passages is shattered by involving the audience, for example after mistreating Kate and pronouncing that “this is the way to kill a wife with kindness,” Petruchio threateningly asks us if any of us “wanna say something?” We did not.
Music is used throughout the play to great effect, one of the many devices used by this company to make the play more innovative and exciting than ever before. Shakespeare’s material is made fresh with an imaginative modern physical aesthetic. By choosing to use an all-male cast, director Edward Hall returns to the roots of the play in Elizabethan theatre, allowing for much riotous stumbling and laddish behavior. Moreover, the fact that the men playing women do not even attempt to look feminine, leaving chest hair exposed, makes the central theme of transformation, deception and mistaken identities more interesting. The physicality of the performance is extremely well choreographed at a rapid pace, bouncing along with great humor, making the physical expression as imaginative as Shakespeare’s poetry. Bianca is played with flirtatious comedy and Katherine gives a particularly powerful performance in a role that relies heavily on expressions and reactions to give a modern take to Shakespeare’s dialogue. Sly/Petruchio is extremely entertaining to watch and has great comic timing. Overall, one can feel a terrific sense of camaraderie amongst the actors which allows for a true ensemble piece. The performers show great talent both in their musical abilities and in their acting.
Apart from the decisions on the cast, this is not a traditional version of Shakespeare, the use of music, costumes and props (ranging from disco balls to mac laptops and electric guitars), give the play a carnivalesque, almost pantomime appeal at times (the costumes sometimes verging onto Village People territory). The set uses the theme of deception quite literally, smoke and mirrors feature in abundance, with movable mirrored cupboards allowing for mid-stage entrances and exits, which, when the whole cast piles into them and falls out of them, cause great hilarity. The audience greeted the play with great enthusiasm and it ended in rapturous applause as it rightly should: this play is everything Shakespeare is meant to be, innovative, dynamic, engaging, all in all a stroke of genius!