When a bunch of guys hang out together without any female influence to
soften them up, a gang mentality inevitably develops. So it is with
Propeller Theatre, the company founded by Edward Hall in 1997 to
produce Shakespeare’s canon acted exclusively by men. The evidence of
fourteen years of male bonding can be gleaned this week when Propeller
fly into Edinburgh with The Comedy of Errors and Richard 111, two
radically different plays requiring equally apposite approaches. In
keeping with their thoroughly modern aesthetic, Hall and the Propeller
boys have opted to lace Richard 111 with a touch of Victorian gothic,
whereby the man who would be king marches through what might be a
mental asylum. For The Comedy of Errors, Hall has taken the company’s
all lads together approach to the limit by setting it on a cheap and
cheerful 1980s package tour in some equally cut-price Mediterranean
“I remembered what it was like,” says Hall, “scarpering off to Tenerife
or Magaluf with your mates. One minute the sun’s shining and
everybody’s having this enormous laugh. The next, things go horribly
wrong and everything’s a mess.”
Hall’s approach to Shakespeare is a refreshingly laid-back one which
isn’t shy about dragging what are still misinterpreted in some quarters
as sacred texts kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.
“These two plays are polar opposites,” he says, “even though they were
both written around the same time. To think that the same guy wrote
them both is quite a thrill, and I’m interested in finding the
different dynamics in them, and it’s really quite exciting seeing them
shoved up against each other in this way. The clue’s in the title with
The Comedy of Errors, nut behind all the silliness is this really
soulful story about someone looking for his other half. So it’s a
lovely mix, and the trick is to try and bring out the soul of the play
alongside the anarchy.
“Richard 111 on the other hand is the last of Shakespeare’s history
cycle of plays, and we’ve set it in this Victorian hospital, which is
almost like this Hammer House of Horror style place. I‘ve never
actually done a formal Shakespeare in the conventional sense, because I
think you have to try and define what it is he was doing with his work.
You know, there’s no such thing really as a Shakespeare history play.
He made his plays ferociously modern, and if he was around today I
think this is the sort of thing he’d be doing. The thing is to find an
aesthetic that fits, and remind yourself that it isn’t real, and that
people in Shakespeare talk to the audience.”
This may be one of the reasons why Propeller have male actors playing
all of Shakespeare’s women, as was the case when the bard himself was
alive. As a device, it’s certainly helped Propeller in terms of
developing a unique profile.
“It was an experiment,” Hall says. “I’m interested in taking away the
modern equipment and giving everything a sense of purpose. When we did
Henry V, we had a chorus of squaddies telling the story of their hero,
so when men played women, no-one batted an eyelid. It’s not a weird or
extraordinary thing, but it keeps coming up whenever I do interviews.
When a man plays Hamlet, you’re not sure who he is as a person, but you
know he’s acting. When a man plays a woman it’s exactly the same
process. You just have to take a leap of imagination.”
Hall isn’t just about Shakespeare, and he has directed several episodes
of Spooks, the long-running labyrinthine TV drama concerning espionage
and skullduggery in high places.
“I really enjoy it,” he says. “It’s wonderful fun, even though it’s
really hard work and really intense. Shooting in London is probably the
hardest place on the planet to film, but the show is fast, it’s modern,
it’s pacey and it’s political.”
As the son of Sir Peter Hall and his second wife Jacqueline Taylor,
Edward Hall was exposed to theatre at the highest level from an early
age. Given that Hall senior founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in
1960, seven years before his son’s birth, one might think having to
follow in such a giant of British theatre’s shoes might be daunting.
Hall junior, however, sounds unfazed.
“I suppose I went to the theatre more than most people when I was
younger,” he says, somewhat understating his case. “But I always
remember that even then it seemed like a natural extension to playing.
It was just that grown-ups did it. Now I’m a father myself I can see
all the role-playing that goes on with kids, and that theatre is just a
more formal way of doing it. But seeing a lot of theatre when I was
young really exposed me to the scarier sides of life. You learn about
everything from murder to love.”
In terms of his father’s influence, Hall maintains that “He’s always
been supportive of whatever I’ve done. I think he was initially worried
that things might not work out for me, but I’ve just got my head down
and got on with it. If you do something interesting, then it’s, oh,
he’s Peter Hall’s son, and if you do something bad it becomes more a
gossipy thing. Regardless of that, though, I have to maintain my own
point of focus and shut all that stuff out.”
The father and son team even worked together on the eight hour epic,
Pantallus, where, according to Hall, “We’d slug it out. We have very
different ideas a lot of the time, and you have to stick to your own
This is all a far cry from Hall’s directorial debut when still an
under-graduate embarking on the rites of passage that is the Edinburgh
We borrowed the money to put it on,” Hall remembers. “We built the set
ourselves, and did everything together on a shoestring. There was a
real gang mentality to it all.”
All of which sounds not too dissimilar to how Propeller operate today.
“Propeller is still very small in feel,” Hall says. “We don’t have lots
of layers of management, and everyone gets involved in everything.
There’s a family feel to things in that way, I suppose. People who are
experts in business management have looked at us and asked us how on
earth we manage to do things the way we do. But it’s a free world, and
we just get on with doing things the way we do them. I started
Propeller with a small group of guys, and we’re still a small group of
guys doing much the same thing.”
The Comedy of Errors runs February 22, 24, 26; Richard 111 runs
February 23-26, both at Kings Theatre, Edinburgh
The Herald, February 22nd 2011