Since the late 1990s, Edward Hall has risen to the front rank of British directors, and beyond. He has staged plays for the National Theatre, for the Royal Shakespeare Company, for important theatres in London’s West End and on Broadway in New York. His range goes from Shakespeare to new plays (musicals and pantomimes, too). But one thread in his career has stayed constant: his all-male Shakespeare company Propeller.
With these men, he has now staged eight Shakespeare productions (one of which, Rose Rage, compressed the three Henry VI plays into two full-length parts). Each of these productions has begun life at the heart-catchingly picturesque little Watermill Theatre in Berkshire, and each of them save Twelfth Night has toured Britain and abroad. Twelfth Night, best of them all when first seen in 1999, is currently being revived at the Old Vic in a double bill with The Taming of the Shrew, the company’s latest staging. They will then tour together to Australia (Perth), the US (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Italy, Germany and around Britain.
You expect Edward Hall, as the son of a famous theatrical father and with two celebrated stepmothers (Leslie Caron and Maria Ewing), to come across as a polished thespian type. But he speaks with a distinct Midlands accent and there is a butch boyishness to his persona: he is wide-eyed, energetic, enthusiastic, friendly and idealistic. I start by asking how Propeller came about, and how it got its name.
Hall: “I’d done a conventional production of Othello at the Watermill one year, but it felt dry. I felt trapped by naturalism.
“So I thought: ‘OK, what if we tried a modern aesthetic?’ So then we tackled Henry V, and then Comedy of Errors, in modern dress, with all men. And straightaway it released so much in the plays. Also I made sure the productions had plenty of music-making. Whoever can play an instrument, we use it on stage. And if we find that an actor has started to brush up his musical skills during a run, then we quickly adapt the music to include him that way. I’ve always enjoyed staging music in a poetic drama. It works really well.
“And during that first Henry V we were saying that we needed a name. Johnny McGuinness, who was playing Henry’s bride Katherine, started to play around with the French he had to speak in the role: ‘parler’ became ‘parlour’, and that led to ‘Propeller’. Daft! – but we liked it at once.
“When it came to staging the Henry VI plays, I was longing to see them without a jerkin in sight. The plays are full of the violence of civil war, and we used a completely unnaturalistic device I’d once seen in a play in Japan, where two men kept hitting not each other but a punchbag with a big bat. Here I had them thwacking vegetables with all the force they could. The actors really caught it, and it worked for the audience. You could hear people gasping in horror as someone squashed a cabbage to a pulp: everyone could feel the human brutality that was intended.
“Twelfth Night, of course, with the central character Viola playing the boy Cesario, is a natural for an all-male production. James Tucker, who was our original Viola, had a fragile, gentle quality that made Viola’s ‘I am not what I am’ become one of the play’s key lines. We felt the production threw questions in the air, beautifully. He’s gone on to do male roles for us: we haven’t pigeonholed any actors exclusively as ‘feminine’ and there are female roles, not least the strong women in Rose Rage and the Dream, that benefited from plenty of masculine force.
“I’ve been wanting for some time to do Taming of the Shrew. An all-male production really releases what’s there. So many feminist productions have tried apologising for the play . . . At the same time, after entering the language of Shakespeare’s later plays with Winter’s Tale, I’m impatient to tackle Cymbeline.”
Edward Hall, now 40, is a child of the yet more celebrated director Peter Hall. Several of Peter’s offspring have worked in theatre, but it is Edward whose career has been biggest to date. As anyone will know who has seen the number of Halls who turn up to each other’s first nights, they form a mutually supportive family. Last year, when I interviewed Peter Hall, he enthused about Edward’s work: “I burst with pride about Edward.” Since my own first experience of The Winter’s Tale had been Hall Senior’s at the National, a staging in some respects still unmatched in my experience, I was surprised to hear him go on to say about Edward’s new Propeller production: “It’s the best Winter’s Tale I’ve ever seen. And that’s a wonderful company of straightforward, unpretentious actors; I love the way you feel that you could just go out to the pub with all of them. Each season, you never know which one is going to play the female roles. They work for very little money, too.”
I remember Peter Hall’s words when I meet, in a café in Old Compton Street, two of the long-term Propeller actors, Vince Leigh and Chris Myles. These two speak in some of the same unpretentious way as Edward Hall: no airs, no graces. They know his plans for the company, including some non-Shakespearian projects, such as staging the Arthurian legends going back to Joseph of Arimathea (Hall: “It’s the English Mahabharata”).
It’s well known that, in rehearsal, Peter Hall likes to start work entirely from the text, sometimes taking two weeks even on a naturalistic modern play before he lets his actors get up and feel the play in their bodies. How long does Edward take? Leigh and Myles explain that he always asks them to have learnt the words beforehand.
Myles: “That doesn’t mean we understand them – that’s what rehearsals are about. With Winter’s Tale, we took five full days – the longest so far. Everybody’s present at every rehearsal, so we all came to the same understanding of just what Leontes, for example, means in his knottiest speeches.”
Leigh: “In between Propeller work, I’ve been in other plays where you’re sent away for rehearsals of the scenes you’re not in. The result is that when you put the play together, you’re often puzzled by the choices actors have made in those other scenes: you may even feel you’d have judged your own scenes differently if only you’d known what they were doing. With Propeller, we’re all involved, and we’re really listening to each other every night.”
I ask Hall if he feels confident about directing now.
“I’m afraid of everything. I always walk into rehearsal afraid that I can’t direct the traffic. But I like that feeling: I hope I never get to the stage when I feel I know how I’m going to handle everything before I start rehearsals. That’s why I’m grateful that not all our actors have been with us since the 1990s, and that new ones have joined. They keep the style fresh. I’m terrified of becoming the victim of an idea.”
‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Twelfth Night’ are at the Old Vic, London SE1. Tel 870 060 6628