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Yes it's the Bard, and it's in your face

Acclaimed all-male Shakespeare troupe makes Boston debut

By Laura Collins-Hughes
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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“With Shakespeare,’’ Edward Hall was saying, “you don’t even have stage directions.’’

The founder and artistic director of England’s Shakespeare-focused Propeller Theatre Company was on the phone from London, talking about his company’s particular brand of modern classic — and the need to shrug off the considerable baggage that accumulates around a play when it’s been staged for 400 years. Disregarding performance tradition, he suggested, is key.

“There’s a terrible trap you fall into where someone says, ‘Well, what are you going to do at the moment when he drops his hat?’ ‘What do you mean, at the moment when he drops his hat?’ ’’ Hall said. “There’s a lot of folklore that grows up with a classic that’s performed a lot.’’

Hall’s globe-trotting, 14-year-old troupe prefers to combine textual fidelity with tremendous physicality and the freedom to, say, whip up a musical number featuring a gospel-belting evangelist. Propeller makes its Boston debut this week at the Huntington Theatre Company, performing the history play “Richard III’’ and the farcical “Comedy of Errors’’ in repertory.

“We very much don’t want to do a 21st-century idea of a 16th-century idea of late-15th-century England — because I don’t know what that is. And you know what? No one else does, actually,’’ said Hall, who is familiar to local audiences from his 2009 Huntington production of Richard N. Goodwin’s “Two Men of Florence.’’

The son of Sir Peter Hall, founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Edward Hall was genial and game in discussing Propeller’s work, with one tiny exception. Queries about its distinctive all-male composition — an echo of Shakespeare’s day, when women were barred from acting and their roles were played by boys — were dispatched in a stock sentence or two, after which Hall fluidly moved on to something else.

“Very simply put, I decided to explore the plays with an all-male cast because that’s how they were originally done,’’ he said, segueing immediately into a description of the actors’ centrality to the performance process.

Wait, wait. Back up. Surely there was something in the artistic result of the all-male experiment that’s made it worth sticking with?

“You know what?’’ he said, annoyed into expansiveness after a bit of this. “It was probably more to do with the group of actors I was working with than it was to do with any great crusade to explore gender politics, because that’s very much not at the forefront of our manifesto.’’

He sounded easygoing again as he added, “It’s an accident of the work we’ve done.’’ Only after a few productions, he explained, did he notice “how interesting it was when people were discussing gender politics and relationships between men and women when men were playing the women.’’

Propeller embraces in-your-face artifice, a direct contradiction of the naturalism that has dominated the stage since the mid-20th century. Hall believes his company’s approach forges a different compact with the spectators — partly because the men playing women are very clearly male: perhaps hairy, perhaps balding, actors rather than female impersonators.

“The most important thing that happens, I think, is that the audience have to suspend their disbelief. They are forced to right at the beginning of the evening,’’ he said. “If anything, the men playing the women are sort of at the root of surreal playmaking.’’

Propeller began in 1997 with a production of “Henry V,’’ and actor Richard Clothier — who plays the title role in “Richard III’’ and the Duke of Ephesus in “The Comedy of Errors’’ — might have been part of the troupe from the start if only he’d accepted Hall’s invitation.

“Well, I was asked to be in it and rather grandly said, ‘Unless I can be Henry V, I’m not interested,’ and duly consigned myself to a year’s unemployment,’’ Clothier recalled jovially from Plymouth, England, where the company was touring. “The next time I found out that he was doing a show, I went and begged to be part of the company again.’’

He joined in 1998, with Propeller’s first production of “The Comedy of Errors.’’

“We had a tiny, tiny budget when we first started,’’ Clothier said. “In terms of how the company’s developed, it’s sort of unrecognizable from what it was. It was all done on a shoestring and was consciously ‘poor theater.’ Everything that had to be done onstage was done by the actors: all the music, all the sound effects, any carting props onto stage and offstage. Nothing was hidden. There was no scenery as such. We put down a floor cloth. That’s what we toured: floor cloth and props.’’

And when the company flew in the early years, those props — “things like knives and pikes and spears’’ — were often carry-on luggage, he said.

Now Propeller travels with bigger, more expensive productions, playing larger theaters, supported by a full staff. But the company’s roots are visible when actors play their own instruments, make sound effects in plain view, or, less often these days, change their costumes onstage. That’s in keeping with Hall’s desire that Propeller “take away some of the technology of the modern theater and generate [the story] from the performance.’’

The company has become so successful that, in Britain this spring, it scored a major four-year funding triumph amid severe fiscal austerity. As Arts Council England announced substantially decreased support to many of the nation’s arts organizations and cut others off entirely, it added Propeller to its portfolio for the first time.

“It’s been a great irony that while lots of companies have gone to the wall, Propeller has been strengthened and given as secure a basis as you could ask for, really,’’ Clothier said, particularly given “the rather scary climate that we’re sort of faced with over here.’’

“The thing that hasn’t changed,’’ he said, “is the ethos and the core sort of values of the company, which are that it all stems from a collaborative effort.’’

By that he meant a rehearsal process that does away with hierarchy, genuinely welcomes the contributions of everyone in the room, and thereby forges an unusual bond of trust between actors and Hall, who Clothier said has a refreshingly “absolute lack of neurosis.’’

“Rather than directing, he edits. He’s got 14 people throwing in ideas, and what he does is he just sifts out the good from the really absurd,’’ Clothier said. “He just coalesces it all into some sensible form. That’s where he’s very different. You don’t ever feel that you’re entirely there to help realize his vision.’’

Speaking of neurosis, Hall exhibited not a trace of it when the topic of Sir Peter Hall came up — specifically, whether the inevitable mentions of the famous father in articles about the son got to be annoying.

“No. I got over that a long, long time ago,’’ said Hall, who last year took over the artistic directorship of London’s Hampstead Theatre, which specializes in new work. “I’m extremely proud of my father and everything he’s done. He’s an extraordinary man who’s brought some extraordinary work to bear all over the world in his lifetime and dedicated himself to the pursuit of art for art’s sake.’’

And as for the “notion of trying to come out from someone’s shadow,’’ he said quite pleasantly, “I’m far too busy getting on with doing what I’m doing to go into therapy about that.’’

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

RICHARD III

and THE COMEDY OF ERRORS

Propeller Theatre Company

Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at Boston University Theatre, Wednesday and Thursday, respectively, through June 19. Tickets: $25-$89; discounts available. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org

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