Propeller, London, UK.
An all-male acting company can be a strange beast. Most plays include
female roles, and the most delicate and petite of the company may find
himself constantly cast as a woman. Not so with Propeller. Director of Twelfth Night,
Edward Hall, casts solely on the basis of acting skills, with little
regard for physical qualities, placing some unlikely looking women
characters in his productions. In addition to this novel approach, no
effort is made to disguise the fact that these are men playing women.
Short hair stays short, stubble is visible, chest hair creeps over the
top of dresses woefully lacking in bosom. Hall believes that by using
only male actors 'a different kind of resonance' is created. By this
means, another layer of identity is added to a play which is already
full of disguises and gender-swapping.
A man playing a girl playing a boy: this is how it was done in
Shakespeare's day. But in employing this method an actor must be careful
that the female aspect is not lost entirely in the presence of the
male. Viola (Tam Williams), is seen briefly in a nightgown and then
spends the rest of the play suited and booted. Williams has a beautiful
and rather striking face, with a sense of being able to lean either way,
towards male or female. He plays Viola as sad and sincere; serious,
innocent, and bereft. We feel for her when she has to woo in the name of
her beloved, and when she cries and is comforted by him. And yet, as a
woman, the sense of identification that I usually feel with her (and
with characters such as Rosalind) is somehow missing. Viola, who should
draw the threads of the story together, seems rather more peripheral
than is usual.
Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Olivia, towers over the rest of the cast and
looks decidedly odd in a dress. He plays the part with a slight edge of
campness, but without ever descending into the realms of panto-dame. Yet
I could not see the character as an actual woman. She came across more
as a drag-queen - accentuated by her enchantment with Cesario, and with
pretty-boy Sebastian (Joe Flynn). Chris Myles as Maria (the only one
with obvious make-up - a white face and ghastly blue eyeshadow) was
somehow the most convincing as a woman, played here as bawdy and
shameless, and very much 'one of the boys'. We can perhaps say that
sometimes a layer of identity is lost, or substituted, by the modern use
of an all-male cast.
The revelry scenes involving scheming satyr Sir Toby (Jason Baughan) and
the wonderfully baffled Sir Andrew (Simon Scardifield) are lively and
highly entertaining, if at times evoking disgusted faces from the
audience in reaction to the bottoms, bawdiness and barf on display. This
production also provides us with a weathered and canny Feste (Tony
Bell), an intense Orsino (Jack Tarlton), and a brazen Malvolio (Bob
Barrett). The deception of Malvolio is amusing; his subsequent pursuing
of Olivia hilarious, as he rips off his trousers to reveal yellow
stockings, fishnets, and a studded leather, thonged, codpiece. But his
imprisonment and torment are played in such a way as to make the
audience extremely uncomfortable with what they are seeing. When the
trickery is finally revealed, Malvolio's rage encompasses the audience,
and we can't help but feel that perhaps we deserve it.
The production overall has a dreamlike and ritualistic quality to it.
The set (designed by Michael Pavelka) is comprised of two vast wardrobes
and an overly tall chest of drawers, covered in mirrors which distort
the images that they reflect. These are moved about to create entrances
and exits, sometimes concealing and sometimes revealing characters as
they go in and out. Spare cast members make up a ghostly masked chorus,
keenly watching the action from points around the stage throughout,
reflecting the other unwatched-watchers in the play. The on-stage chorus
also provide the music for the piece by means of humming, chanting, and
various unusual instruments. Music and effects are deliberately made
transparent, and this adds an extra sense of fascination to the piece.
Despite my reservations about the female characters, this is a
production which I very much enjoyed. Everyone (and everything) is
constantly on the move, and the whole play is suffused with excitement
and innovation. My only real criticism is that whilst the trickery and
revelry is amusing, much potential comedy between the would-be lovers is
lost. Love, it would seem, in this version of Twelfth Night, is indeed a very serious thing.
This review was originally published on The Shakespeare Revue.