Bard propelled in new directions

Richard Clothier (Richard III) and Thomas Padden (Hastings) in Propeller's production of Richard III
Richard Clothier (Richard III) and Thomas Padden (Hastings) in Propeller's production of Richard III

An all-male company renowned for innovative interpretations of Shakespeare plays are at the Lyceum next week, reports Ian Soutar

SHEFFIELD is about to experience Shakespeare Propeller-style when the all-male company brings two new interpretations of the Bard, Richard III and The Comedy of Errors, to the Lyceum.

Propeller has built up a reputation for presenting Shakespeare in an engaging way by taking a rigorous approach to the text mixed with a modern physical aesthetic influenced by mask work, animation and classic and modern film and music.

A stalwart of the company, Richard Clothier, who is playing Richard III, explains the company’s origins. “Thirteen years ago the director, Ed Hall, was invited to do a show at the Watermill at Newbury.

“He was assisting at the RSC at the time and said he would like to do a production of Henry V with the specific idea of having it told by a bunch of squaddies.

“It was a four-week run with hardly any budget but it proved hugely successful. Ed decided he wanted to get a company together after that on the same principles of a self-reliant acting ensemble and so Propeller was born and the ethos is still the same.”

In being an all-male company they are returning to how Shakespeare was originally performed. “The ethos is less about the historical aspects of all-male companies,” he suggests, “it’s been like that since the beginning because the company Ed got together worked so well and bore fruit quickly.

“Anything on stage is done by the actors – music, singing, sound effects. The idea extends to terms of employment. If you were in the last show you are automatically offered a part in the next one.”

Clothier has been with Propeller since the second incarnation of that first play, Henry V, in 1998. “There are four guys in this production I have known for 13 years doing these productions on and off,” he says.

“There is only one actor who has been in every single show since the beginning.”

So how does the cross-dressing work? “There is no attempt to make the prettier male members play the females,” Clothier reveals. “It’s more about fitting the character. So I have been able to play Titania, weighing in at 15 stone.

“What we have discovered over the years is that if you ask the audience to make this kind of extra leap in the suspension of disbelief they are more than willing to go along with it and that opens the door to the possibility of a far less passive act in watching the play. You are confronted with the language more than men playing children and women.”

Propeller’s production of Richard III uses Hammer Horror as an inspiration. Much of the diabolic action in Shakespeare takes place offstage but Clothier says: “What we have managed to do is to find a way of visually giving the murders for which he is responsible a life on stage.

“As an audience you get to appreciate just how many he was responsible for – including the kids in the tower. The physical reality makes the audience think in a different way.”

Clothier does not disguise the “psycopathic and ruthless” side of Richard but also hopes to establish a rapport with the audience whom he sometimes addresses directly.

“I may be biased but I think he makes the audience complicit in what he does. there’s a shared irony as the audience and Richard know what is going to happen. There’s a dreadful unwitting participation which is delicious for the audience.

“There’s something of the PT Barnum in the way he orchestrates a circus to get his way,” he continues. “He is the most ruthless of killers but I hope the audience spends time swinging between finding things vile and repulsive and absolutely hysterical.”

Another aspect of Propeller’s productions is the distinctive settings.”The reign of Henry VI was a particularly bloody and turbulent period of English history and our production of those plays was set in a Victorian abattoir,” says Clothier.

“It was a heavy metaphor about what was going on but there is an awful lot in the text about butchery and the slaughter of animals. The third part of that show, Rose Rage, focused on Richard III. Now we have taken it out of a Victorian abattoir into the Edwardian era with a looser setting with the suggestion of a sanitorium or madhouse.”

The set is interchangable between both contrasting plays. In Michael Pavelka’s design the madhouse of Richard III becomes “a kind of tacky Greek holiday resort” for the Ephesia of the Comedy of Errors (in which Clothier is playing the Duke).

The Propeller way is summed up by Clothier. “Shakespeare sometimes feels as though it doesn’t belong to a modern audience. There’s a sense of watching it because it will be good for you. But I think we avoid that and manage to keep schoolchildren as rapt as the Shakespeare diehards.”

The Comedy of Errors runs next week from Wednesday to Saturday plus a Thursday performance the following week when Richard III is on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.