For anyone who has encountered the muscular and visceral productions of Shakespeare staged by UK theatre company Propeller (especially their particularly bloody three parts of Henry VI, which were harrowingly set in an abattoir), it may come as no surprise that the company’s artistic director, Edward Hall, once chased an intruder out of his home while brandishing a baseball bat.
This, says Hall, is an example of how people behave with unthinking brutality at times of stress. His point: imagine, then, the brutality at times of war such as those portrayed in Henry V, one of two plays Propeller is bringing to this year’s New Zealand International Arts Festival.
“Fortunately, I didn’t catch him,” says Hall, although it’s not clear whether he is grateful on behalf of the intruder, who presumably avoided a beating, or on behalf of himself for avoiding a possible charge of assault. Probably both. “In combat, you can’t stop to think what you would do because by the time you have a thought, you’re dead.”
The second play Hall’s all-male Shakespeare company will perform in Wellington is the psychologically more slippery The Winter’s Tale, which is driven by the blind jealousy of central character Leontes. It’s hard to imagine two more different Shakespeare plays. Although bringing together seemingly discordant pieces is a Propeller speciality: their previous double bill improbably paired Richard III and The Comedy of Errors, turning the tragedy into a noir comedy and the comedy into a piece of dark irony.
As with those critically acclaimed productions, Henry V and The Winter’s Tale will inevitably have the frisson that comes when a bunch of generally burly blokes play male and female roles. But what tends to count most with Propeller productions is not the sex of the cast but that an audience of Shakespeare newcomers and veterans are put on an equal footing. Each group is likely to leave the theatre with the sense they have seen something new – not only a modern production, but a modern play. Still, when in Henry V the victorious English king (played by Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) woos the beautiful French princess (Karl Davies), that frisson will be there.
‘We use modern dress, yes. But none of the physical costumes and sets are literal. We use touchstones and create surreal worlds because the plays are surreal – not naturalistic,” says Hall during a break in rehearsal. “It’s not like we’re trying to persuade the audience that this is real. We are actively saying it’s not and encouraging people to make that leap. In fact, that’s theatre. The tradition of our [English] drama is based on that sort of surreality on the stage.”
At 44, Hall has more than just a passing resemblance to his director father, Sir Peter, and perhaps even his half-sister, Rebecca, whose name in print is increasingly preceded by the words film and star. Edward also considered acting as a career. Before that, there was a stint running a music hire company and the possibility of a life in sport. “I was a pretty mean cricketer,” he says with a hint of pride. But by his early twenties, it was a life in the theatre that beckoned. And if there were any reservations about following in the footsteps of his father – the man who founded the Royal Shakespeare Company, ran the National Theatre and introduced Samuel Beckett to the London stage – it never showed.
“In the early years, I never believed I would do anything but direct theatre. But I also believed passionately in theatre and in its place in our cultural life, that it is a force for good, and in its ability to debate pertinent issues, entertain and take us away from ourselves. There is nothing better.” The fact the first Propeller production 15 years ago was such a critical and, for Hall, artistic success must have helped. Coincidentally, that show was Henry V.
“That production was very different. When we rehearse the play, there are faint echoes in the room, but all the actors are playing different parts. I wanted to do it in 2012 because it asks who we are and what binds us together, and we’re doing the Olympics, so I thought it was time to re-explore that particular story.” Hall isn’t new to The Winter’s Tale, either.
“It’s unfinished business for me as a director. I want to see how the binding themes of honour connect the two pieces.” These days, Hall is also artistic director of north London’s Hampstead Theatre, one of the most important new writing venues on the UK’s theatrical landscape. But he took the job after his predecessor’s tenure had left the venue’s reputation in tatters.
“It’s taken me a little longer than I would have liked to get people’s confidence back in what they were coming to see at the theatre. But I don’t think that reputation changed the way I approach the job. I have done and will continue to try to do theatre that is entertaining, relevant and brave.” From the man who chased away an intruder with a baseball bat, you wouldn’t expect anything less.
HENRY V, February 29, March 2 and 4, THE WINTER’S TALE, March 1, 3 and 4, Propeller, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival, Wellington.