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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Everyman Theatre (Cheltenham)


  The cast in Henry V/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller touring Shakespeare company has been on the road – with diversions to New York and the Antipodes – for 15 years now. It’s a long time, but the new programme of Henry Vand The Winter’s Talefinds them fighting fit – literally so, in the first, testosterone-fuelled play – and far from finished.
What are the principles at play here? It’s not a gay collective (quite the opposite, by all accounts), and the re-visiting of Elizabethan theatre conditions when women were barred from the stage is hardly a new line of investigation. Declan Donnellan with Cheek by Jowl and Mark Rylance at the Globe have both been down that path.
Hall himself tends to say merely that the point is to do the plays with clarity, speed and imagination, and in that respect his dominant aesthetic is one of adding to the words with robust physical action and driving to their heart and humanity without gender (he means, “female”) specification.
For many of the plays this works. For The Winter’s Tale, I’m afraid, it doesn’t. Which is not to say that this version is a failure. It is lucid and extremely entertaining, especially in Bohemia, 16 years after the disastrous fallout from Leontes’ groundless jealousy explosion, where the sheep-shearing festivities become a rock concert, with a chorus of woolly farm animals and a drum kit bearing the legend, “The Bleatles.”
But in the great female roles of the wronged Hermione and the loyal Paulina, Shakespeare intuits the female psyche to such an extent (as indeed he did with Cleopatra and Rosalind) that to cast men in the roles today seems unnecessarily perverse. Richard Dempsey’s Hermione is, as a result, a rather fey and anachronistically glacial creature, while Vince Leigh’s six-foot Paulina, dressed in a silk trouser suit and bandanna, resembles a tall tranny with a soft streak.
Designing both plays, Michael Pavelka provides a mobile scaffold for Henry V and a shimmering silver box for the first part of The Winter’s Tale, with a rock-concert campsite for the second. Musical and costuming standards are very high, with all the actors playing and indeed composing their own numbers: sweat shirts, camouflage trousers and Doc Martens for Henry V (yes, it is a bit like The Black Watch, substituting Agincourt for Afghanistan), sober suits and Haight-Ashbury beads and kaftans for The Winter’s Tale.
The major plus in both plays is the way Propeller manages to make Shakespeare sound simple, as well as sinewy, without garbling or proclaiming. This side of their work is at least as good as the RSC at its best, and probably, at the moment, better.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart’s King Henry, for instance, pitches his great oratory with a confidence and sandpaper dryness that beats any Henry I’ve seen outside Alan Howard and Kenneth Branagh. And Robert Hands as Leontes eschews whirlwind histrionics for a slow build to his brash decrees that makes the fate of Hermione all the more moving.
None of this had to happen, as the later Leontes, now confined to a wheelchair, realises. Hands makes him so human that his penitence becomes, in our eyes, another form of suffering. In a brilliant touch, his lost son Mamillius – who recounts “the winter’s tale” in his pyjamas, as a ghost – is translated by the same actor, Ben Allen, into the redemptive Perdita, the queen of curds and creams.
Over two plays, all the actors have their moments to shine while maintaining the energetic fabric of the whole. Tony Bell, for instance, enjoys himself enormously as both an outrageous Mistress Quickly and that sly Welsh casuist, Fluellan, in the first play, before really letting rip as Autolycus in the second; the snapper-up of unconsidered trifles is recycled as an Iggy Pop-style rocker with a golden belt of CDs for his profiteering ballads. An air of freshness and improvisation is endemic to how Propeller works, and you can see the pay-off in the strictly controlled yet exhilarating end result.


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