I had already heard great things about Propeller Theatre Company’s approach to Shakespeare and so approached A Midsummer Night’s Dream with exceedingly high hopes. In the past, I’ve had a difficult relationship with the comedy, initially finding it hard to get past my dislike of the lovers to appreciate the humour of the Faery Court and The Lamentable Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe. In fact, I long thought the whole play could be improved if the scenes with the lovers were cut entirely and the whole thing focussed more on the play within a play, which I have always loved. However, each time I see a decent production I find myself loving the whole thing a little more. From the am-dram production my sister was involved in to the in-the-round production in the Garden Room of a stately home I gradually found, lovers aside, I liked it. Two years ago a couple of fellow teachers and Shakespeare geeks and I saw the Guildford Shakespeare Company’s outdoor production which was staged in the beautiful gardens and Elizabethan manor house of the College of Law. Unfortunately it rained quite heavily and, cold and wet through, we abandoned the second half of the play. However, this aborted outdoor production and the 1999 film version helped me appreciate some of the comedy in the lover’s scenes.
And so when I heard Mum and Dad were off to see Propeller’s performance I invited myself along on the trip. Thus we headed off for the matinee performance at the lovely Theatre Royal, Norwich. According to the company’s website, “Propeller is an all-male Shakespeare company which seeks to find a more engaging way of expressing Shakespeare and to more completely explore the relationship between text and performance. Mixing a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic, they have been influenced by mask work, animation and classic and modern film and music from all ages.”
As the audience filed in and found their seats I was surprised to note the stage curtain was up, showing an interesting set up on stage. White camo net hung on three sides with chairs ‘suspended’ side by side as a platform around the edges. Towards the front on both stage right and left there was a two-seater chair atop a framework which also doubled up as stage entrances. Centre stage there was a large sheet covering a sort of pyramidic shape. Gradually, one by one, the actors entered the stage until they were pretty much all gathered, sitting, leaning or standing around the edges of the stage. The auditorium lights went down and a hush descended – even the assorted school parties quietened fairly swiftly as music drifted up from the stage and we were off. Music and song from, I presume the faery court, heralded the upside down entrance of the inimitable Puck soon followed by Theseus and Hippolyta. Once the formalities between Duke and future bride are out of the way, enter Egeus and his daughter Hermia with Demetrius and Lysander in tow. Usually I switch off a little in these scenes, but this time I found myself totally engaged with Matthew McPherson’s portrayal of Hermia. His mannerisms and gestures added a subtle degree of physical comedy to the scene and his interactions with Dan Wheeler’s Helena perceptively parodied feminine interactions. For the most part I didn’t consider that they were men playing female roles, I suppose technically they aren’t as the roles were originally written for men but you know what I mean.
McPherson also doubled up as Snug the Joiner in the scenes with the mechanicals, something which I didn’t even twig until just before the full performance of Pyramus and Thisbe. Even when Hermia left the stage and returned as Snug it didn’t seem odd. This is all testament to how engaging the on stage action is. I even paid attention to the conversation between Theseus and Hippolyta, which I have never really listened to. I know this because I was surprised to hear her mention Hercules and Theseus refer to Thessaly (although not as in Amber but the place of course). As usual, although for entirely different reasons, The Lamentable Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe was the proverbial jewel in the performances’ crown. This time because of the slapstick elements Propeller have added, not because it offered a welcome break from the tedium of the court. High points include Thisbe losing it and attacking everyone with her scarf while fleeing the lion, moonshine with serious anger problems and an even more extended than usual death scene from both of the lovers. I can’t say any more than that or all the fun will be taken out of it.
Another clear indicator that the Propeller boys have absolutely nailed a captivating performance was the fact that, other than the scenery they start with, there are no scene changes and costumes are minimal, albeit in some cases bizarre. At times the sheet which was covering part of the stage was employed with others as a sort of minimal set dressing. Hippolyta’s bustle was made up of a fur coat, waistcoat and fur stoles all hanging off a coat hanger attached to a belt, Puck sported stripy tights, ruby slippers and a tutu while the lovers seemed to favour slightly Edwardianish garb. When not playing a specific ‘role’ the performers wore all white; long johns and long sleeved top, cod piece and a girdle, none of which, in the context of the performance seemed weird.
Much as I want to share further favourite moments from the play, such as Bottom’s rather bawdy Ass, Puck in general and the oh so manly Cobweb, I am aware that a lot of the magic in Propeller’s interpretation is in the comedy and the unexpected nature of a lot of it. All I can say is this is a must see, the combination of music, songs, slapstick and Shakespeare blends together in such a way that you feel, if this is not how it was meant to be performed then the Bard himself has missed a trick. From hempen homespuns, to faery kings and queens, what visions have I seen.
For further information on Propeller and upcoming performances – http://propeller.org.uk/ No, seriously, check the link out and then go see them. You HAVE to go see them!