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Review: @Propellertheatr Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew at the Hampstead Theatre

Each year I see Propeller I get a little more smitten with them. I mean what isn't to love about an all male Shakespeare company that almost guarantees at least one appearance of a pair of bare buttocks?

Smut aside they have an irrevant, fresh approach to Shakespeare that I love often stuffed with joyous moments that have the plays rocking along.

First up is Twelfth Night:

Chris_Myles__Malvolio__in_Propeller_s_Twelfth_Night._Photo_by_Manuel_Harlan.__5_Having seen The Globe's brilliant, traditional and very lively production with Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry earlier in the year I was expecting Propeller to ratchet the physical comedy to new levels adding their own trademark spin. But it turned out to be something I wasn't at all expecting and I liked it all the more for it.

This was a melancholy, almost haunting production of Twelfth Night which made the contrasting comedy moment all the funnier.  There were still moments of farce and silliness, snatches of modern tunes amusingly appropriate to the scene and flirtation with the audience but in between it was far subtler showcasing something more akin to the reflective side of love.

Relationships between characters I'd never noticed before or rather took for narrative contrivances got a chance to blossom away from the usual frolicking.

The initial storm sequence was done with a ship in a bottle and the twins (Viola - Joseph Chance and Sebastian - Dan Wheeler) born aloft by others in the company as if floating on waves. Then we meet Orsino (Christopher Heywood) in an almost Miss Haversham-style repose. There is a huge chandelier on its side in the middle of the floor and dust sheets over huge wardrobes with antique mirrored doors which would become the main set (for both plays). These acted as both entrance and exit points, doors to slam and hidey holes and changing rooms, tipped on their side to make tables and pushed to one side when not needed.

The stage was often populated by silent, mask wearing observers who occasionally provided percussion and musical support in the usual Propeller style. The flourishes too had a Propeller stamp, Malvolio's (Chris Myles) yellow stockings with cross garters were yellow tights with large-mesh, black fish net tights over the top (and, of course, a studded leatherette thong). And in the garden sequence where he discovers the letter supposedly from Olivia (Ben Allen) there were some brilliant human statues producing amusing poses and sound effects when backs were turned.

I liked the cut of Propeller's Twelfth Night cloth on this one. I thought I knew what they would do and they surprised me.


8491027193_aaa5fa4868_zAnd then there was The Taming of the Shrew, a play I'm far less familiar with, in fact I think this may have been the first stage version I've seen.

Where Twelfth Night was melancholy with comedic outbursts, The Taming of the Shrew had its comedy sandwiched with something that was more muscular, aggressive and sometimes quite disturbing.

Dan Wheeler's Katherine, a Doc Martin wearing goth, was so verbally and physically violent at the outset that there was only one way to go and that was make Petruchio (Vincent Leigh) more than a physical match. He doesn't so much beat her down with words as physically beat her down, dragging Katherine around the stage by the hair at one point. It wasn't an easy watch and it did over shadow some of the funnier moments. Perhaps Wheeler just looked a bit too terrified.

The pay-off, that all has been a play within a play and part of a trick on the drunken Sly isn't a satisfying as a genuine coming together of Petruchio and Kate. I was left waiting for a small sign of rebellion on her part because there didn't seem to be any room for love.

Of course Petruchio's violent outbursts made for some terrified servants and some brilliantly comic moments particularly when dinner was being served. And who couldn't laugh when he turns up to get married wearing a suede fringed, cowboy jacket, cowboy boots and a thong?

Taming of the Shrew had enough lighter moments to make for enjoyable ride but its musical refrain was "Did he marry her for money or did he marry her for love?" which wasn't ambiguous enough for me.

Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew run in rep at the Hampstead Theatre until July 20th and you can find trailers to both on the Propeller website.

Production photos: Manuel Harlan