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Watermill - The Taming of the Shrew

14th September to 28th October 2006. Also see below for reviews of the Old Vic productions in January 2007 of Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night.

From The Times.

Two stars
There’s no doubting the freshness and vigour that Edward Hall’s all-male Propeller company brings to its Shakespearean interpretations — and the results can be inspired. But on this occasion something has gone awry. Hall’s staging of this tricky, gender-politically contentious comedy (which after its Watermill run tours nationally and internationally, visiting the RSC’s Complete Works Festival and the Old Vic in London) manages to be both frenetic and laboured. It’s so cluttered with clumsy roughhousing, unwieldy props, bizarre costumes and over-broad comedy that the story itself is stifled.

Hall reinstates the framing device of Shakespeare’s Induction scene, often cut by directors, in which a drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, is tricked into believing himself a wealthy nobleman and entertained by a troupe of strolling players. In his newly acquired manorial dressing room, Sly is surrounded by mirrored wardrobes, which allow for some witty surprise entrances and underline the play’s themes of disguise, deception, vanity and confinement. But although here it is given the additional resonance of taking place on Sly’s own disastrous wedding day, the sequence gets the production off to a slow start.

The play-within-a-play that follows is sometimes frustratingly chaotic. Corsetry, religious robes, cowboy hats and Seventies stack heels create an incoherent aesthetic. Tam Williams’s Lucentio, curiously dressed as a matador, and Tony Bell’s hulking Tranio make unengaging work of their identity-swapping plot to woo Jon Trenchard’s simpering Bianca. And there’s scant wit in the verbal sparring between the brutish Petruchio of Dugald Bruce Lockhart — transformed from Sly — and Simon Scardifield’s abused Katherine.

Scardifield is, however, the production’s greatest asset. As Petruchio sets about “taming” his new bride, the audience becomes witness to horrific domestic violence. When Katherine eventually capitulates to her husband, she is a woman destroyed, self-loathing and irrevocably broken. Scardifield’s fierce, leggy Kate is dignified, agonised and finally despairing — the victimised moral centre of a grotesque and misogynistic world into which she can fit only through self-abnegation.

There’s an ultimate sense, in the reappearance of Sly at the production’s conclusion, that this is his lesson rather than hers — the punishment for his earlier drunken jilting of his bride. Here, and elsewhere, there’s evidence of a thoughtful and inventive reading of the text. It’s a shame it’s often buried beneath bombast.


From Newbury Theatre.

As we enter the theatre, the cast are greeting us as ushers at the wedding of Christopher Sly and Katherine Minola. They wave to us in the congregation, and take photos. But they are looking anxious – the bridegroom hasn’t turned up, and the drunken Sly metamorphoses into Petruchio, who takes it upon himself to tame the shrew.

Edward Hall’s Propeller company have produced so many outstanding shows at the Watermill that any new production from them has to be a must-see.

The two main threads of the story relate to Baptista’s two daughters, Bianca and Kate. Bianca – a compelling performance from Jon Trenchard – is, unsurprisingly, her father’s favourite and is wooed by Lucentio, Gremio and Hortensio. Lucentio’s wooing is done vicariously through his servant Tranio – a typically over-the-top but very funny performance from Tony Bell – while Chris Myles’ trainspotter-like Gremio made the most deliciously unsuitable suitor.

The other thread, of course, is that of Petruchio (Dugald Bruce Lockart) and Kate (Simon Scardifield). Starting off as Jack-the-lad, Petruchio shows himself to be a heartless bully and wife-beater, sapping Kate’s spirit and numbing her into submission. This was a chillingly believable performance from both actors, giving a surprisingly modern take on arranged marriage and battered wives. In fact it was such a convincing portrayal of a loveless marriage that I was rather taken aback when I subsequently read Edward Hall’s programme notes where he says that Petruchio “falls in love with her, as his language makes clear” and that Kate falls for him. The language may make it clear, but the actions speak louder than words. Petruchio was a scheming manipulator, showing no love for his wife, and Kate is brainwashed and browbeaten into accepting her role.

It is a worry if the director’s intentions didn’t come across through the performance, but this didn’t affect the impact of an extremely powerful production, which you should definitely go and see.


From the Telegraph.

Also shortly to visit the [RSC's Complete Works] festival is another radical Shakespeare production from another close-knit touring troupe, but this time the fun the actors of Propeller clearly had in re-creating The Taming of the Shrew in their own, all-male image, doesn't carry across the stage.

Edward Hall's conceptual solution to this famously misogynistic fare creates all kinds of problems. The often-excised prologue involving the tinker, Christopher Sly, has been turned into a new framing device: first seen jilting his bride at the altar, the drunken reprobate is coaxed into taking the role of Petruchio, so that the play-within-a-play performed for his benefit becomes a damning commentary on Sly's attitude to women.

Dugald Bruce Lockhart's Sly revels in the unsympathetic part of swaggering abuser. Has he got issues with his sexuality? There's a lot of diving in and out of closets in this production, and Petruchio's kinky nuptial look – involving a posing pouch, chest hair and cowboy boots - screams pure camp.

Yet quite what's going on at the level of subtext is hard to discern and, thanks to the tirelessly frolicsome approach, it's hard to care. Simon Scardifield's intelligent, hirsute Kate is the evening's biggest saving grace – moving from strong-headed self-certainty to poignant abjection. Even he can't dispel the nagging worry, though, that with this play of all plays, Propeller should have done the gentlemanly thing and let the ladies in.


From the Newbury Weekly News.

Amused or abused?

Ed Hall turns to the dark side for his take on the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until October 28

In rehearsals, Simon Scardifield (Kate) hinted at the darkness of this production, but I was still quite unprepared for full-on domestic violence which left the feisty heroine broken and degraded.

There's currently something of the menace of A Clockwork Orange at The Watermill.

But this is a play within a play, just a dream... so all that stuff's OK. Isn't it?

We'd arrived for a wedding. Were we here for the bride or groom? That was a loaded question.

We could sit anywhere, said the men in morning dress. Mourning suits more like.

Sly. The loser - a drunken tinker hoodwinked by a band of players into thinking he's a lord. How does he handle that power when he realises he can marry into money? All he needs to do is tame a shrew.

Don't expect comic banter and slapstick in this production. Ed Hall has once again delivered a new take on the seemingly familiar and it's a powerful, if claustrophobic, piece of theatre, cleverly designed by Michael Pavelka. The last thing Sly wants to see is a reflection of what he is, but that's tough, because the set is a series of mirrored closets, with images multiplied on the outside, lives confined within. Doors burst open, action spills out. Pure farce.

At times it became surreal.

It is a brilliant ensemble piece, delivered with the speed and energy we expect from this company. The Propeller boys were slicker than oil from a leaking tanker - a result of their eight-year 14-way marriage, they anticipate each other, they're good together. And they can make the Shakespearean language sing.

So why did I feel uneasy about this production?

There's been a shift. For the first time since Propeller was conceived at The Watermill, instead of the company interpreting Shakespeare's work, it seemed to have become more a vehicle for them.

Would he feel amused or abused by that?


There are reviews in What's on Stage ("almost uncompromisingly bleak" Three stars), Theatreworld Internet Magazine ("this cruel unfunny dream, unlike any other Propeller production I have seen, leaves an odd unbalanced taste in the mouth"), British Theatre Guide ("a mixture of contradictory elements: very dream-like").

These reviews were of the Old Vic productions in January 2007.

From The Times.

Three stars
The Taming of the Shrew
Three stars
Twelfth Night
Is it possible to display too lively an imagination? That seems an ungrateful accusation to throw at Edward Hall and his all-male Propeller Company, especially as both their Shakespeare revivals contain funny moments and boast excellent performances, notably from a young actor called Simon Scardifield, who switches from a notably fierce Kate in The Shrew to a hilariously feeble Aguecheek in Twelfth Night with the finesse of a fire-eater who can also juggle on the tightrope.

But each production is overbusy, at times distractingly so. When Bob Barrett’s gloriously vain Malvolio is being gulled with the fake love letter from Olivia, why must three men in dinner jackets be behind him, enacting “say, hear, speak no evil” with the traditional gestures? Why are actors in half-masks forever eavesdropping on the speakers? Why is there such an array of costumes in The Shrew? Why must the actors keep exiting through wardrobes?

But if there’s too much knockabout in The Shrew, and the Christopher Sly “induction” is cursorily and confusingly used, the transformation of the English tinker into the Italian aristocrat still works. It’s fashionable nowadays to follow Germaine Greer’s view that Petruchio is the sort of real man that strong, frustrated women need; but Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is refreshingly different, a coarse, swaggering fortune-hunter who treats Scardifield’s Kate with such brutal contempt that she ends up not merely abjuring her violence but succumbing to a case of Stockholm syndrome that leaves her half-compliantly, half-resentfully reduced to shattered resignation.

Twelfth Night is a richer play and comes off better, thanks to Jack Tarlton’s rapturous Orsino, Tony Bell’s wry Feste, Jason Baughan’s peppy little satyr of a Belch and Scardifield as an Aguecheek as limited, good-natured and eager to please as Bertie Wooster at a Drones Club bread-throwing session. The scene in which he has his abortive fight with Viola, here a boxing bout that could happily continue longer, is funnier than usual. But overall Tam Williams, who plays the disguised Viola, makes a plucky character too soft and tentative, and Bruce-Lockhart, who is now Olivia, does far too much precious wincing, arch wiggling and general palpitating.

That’s the danger when grown men take the roles originally played by boys. Women become exaggeratedly womanish. You have to admire Bruce-Lockhart from jumping from one gender extreme to another, but he parodies femininity — and that’s a problem Edward Hall needs to overcome if Propeller is to flourish.


From The Guardian.

Two stars
The Taming of the Shrew
Four stars
Twelfth Night
Here we have two Shakespeare comedies with the same director (Edward Hall), designer (Michael Pavelka), and an all-male Propeller cast. Yet the sublime Twelfth Night far exceeds the coarse Shrew; and not just because it is the better play, but because it is ideally suited to Propeller's fascination with dreams and sexual ambivalence.

Everything in Hall's Twelfth Night is wondrous strange. Orsino's court is a place of dust-sheeted wardrobes resembling Miss Havisham's mildewed lair. The sea-storm is evoked through a ship in a bottle and swirling movement. And the whole ensemble is constantly present either as masked observers, musicians, or sound-effects men.

This dream-like atmosphere reaches its peak in the garden scene, where Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's Olivia doubles as part of the statuary; at one point Malvolio even tears a letter from her grasp wittily crying "by my life this is my lady's hand". Like all the best Twelfth Nights, Hall's production captures the play's opal-like shifts of mood: the sadness within the comedy, and the absurdity within the love story. The keynote is provided by Tony Bell's superbly decrepit Feste, who wanders through the action with a look of wry amusement and who combines fiddling and fooling. Tam Williams as Viola, a man playing a girl disguised as a boy, also perfectly captures the character's sexual puzzlement. And the baiting of Bob Barrett's Malvolio, preposterous in his yellow fishnet tights, is done with the appropriate cruelty. They say there is a perfect Twelfth Night laid up for us in heaven. In the meantime there is a magnificent one available in The Cut.

The all-male Propeller style works less well in The Shrew. By stressing the induction, Hall presents the whole play as the dream of a drunken tinker in which Christopher Sly transmogrifies into Petruchio; but this seems a slight cop-out, as if to explain the play's psychological cruelty. And when you see Petruchio taming a male Kate, the play loses much of its erotic charge: there should be both sexiness and danger in the central relationship, but Simon Scardifield's hairy-chested Kate rarely gets much beyond sullen resentment.

A recent RSC revival boldly showed Kate acting as loving therapist to a psychotic Petruchio. Here, we are back to the old brutality, with Petruchio whistling to his battered wife as if she were a dog. Within this there are momentary felicities, and good performances from Tony Bell as Tranio and Bob Barrett as Baptista. But I yearned for the sexual tension that comes from the presence of real women.


From The Independent.

Revival of Elizabethan casting puts brutality in the spotlight

The performer playing Katherine has a more densely hairy chest than the performer playing Petruchio in Edward Hall's vigorous and provocative production of The Taming of the Shrew. This is not because of some disastrously misguided decision to recruit an actress in need of drastic waxing. Hall's Propeller Company has a policy of combining a revival of the Elizabethan convention of all-male casting with a cheekily eclectic contemporary sensibility. The virtues (and some of the vices) of this approach can be seen in the two plays - The Shrew and Twelfth Night - that are now running in rep (and on some days as a double bill) at the Old Vic.

The Shrew is widely regarded as Shakespeare's most controversial and distasteful comedy. Hall redeems it from the charge of being a chauvinist drama in which, with authorial approval, a woman's spirit is broken by a thuggish new husband in two ways. First, he retains the often-dropped framing action involving the drunken tinker, Christopher Sly, and he gives this a new twist. His production begins with a wedding scene in which Sly turns up late and sloshed for his own nuptials. He thus becomes a kind of pre-echo of Petruchio and the main comic drama is presented as a dream-like play-within-play - a wish-fulfilling fantasy of wife-taming in which Sly adopts the role of Shakespeare's dominating hero.

But while this gives the main inset action an ironic context, Hall uses the all-male casting to hammer home the brutality of Petruchio's methods. Wearing little but cowboy boots and a Stetson when he shows up for his wedding, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart's cocky, swaggering Petruchio is able to be as rough as he likes with Simon Scardifield's initially stroppy and increasingly withdrawn and depressed Kate. By the end, she resembles a battered wife, mouthing, with a sullen, faintly satiric edge, the letter but not the spirit of the submission speeches. Modern productions often intimate that Kate and Petruchio recognise each other as soul-mates and that the public demonstration of complete obedience is their private conspiratorial joke. Here, in a version that is boisterously comic in other respects, Scardifield's superb performance refuses to give the audience that refuge.

Some of the melancholic delicacy of Twelfth Night is lost in Hall's rather over-the-top production. But the single-sex casting undeniably intensifies the frissons of erotic ambiguity. Tam Williams is a wonderfully sensitive Viola. The fact that he is a man playing a woman pretending to be a man highlights the homosexual dimension in Orsino's fondness for "Cesario" and adds a layer of complication to Viola's statement that "I am not what I am". Having played a highly butch Petruchio, Bruce-Lockart offers an exaggerated contrast in his over-camp and vampish Olivia in Twelfth Night. The versatility of the actors, though, is one of the great pleasures of the double bill, as is the terrific sense of a strongly bonded company.


From Newbury Theatre.

Propeller have done it again. They have teamed up last year’s bleak but thought-provoking Taming of the Shrew with a new production of Twelfth Night, and it’s a triumph.

Shakespeare plays can be tedious and can be difficult to understand, but Propeller always manage to make them enjoyable and comprehensible.

From the start, when Viola (Tam Williams) is washed up on the shores of Illyria, and throughout the play, there are lookers-on in masks, taking a curious interest in what’s happening, like the drowned sailors who come back to haunt Captain Cat in Under Milk Wood.

Dugald Bruce Lockhart’s Olivia was neurotic and waspish; she got the servants she deserved in Maria – Chris Myles: efficient, no-nonsense, would make a good traffic warden – and Malvolio – a wonderfully pompous Bob Barrett, would probably get a job as a bouncer after his come-uppance.

Jason Baughan was an earthy Toby, assisted by Simon Scardifield’s Sir Andrew, engagingly vague and upper class. Feste just had to be Tony Bell, mixing his northern-accented foolery with a touch of wisdom. Jack Tarlton was a worthy Orsino and Jon Trenchard was a delightfully scatty priest. Joe Flynn, as Sebastian, was spookily similar to Viola (Twelfth Night is always difficult for amateur groups to pull off because of the near-impossibility of finding lookalikes; professional theatre has more choice).

If it’s not done well, Shakespearean comedy can be embarrassingly unfunny. Edward Hall’s production was not just funny, it was hilarious. Malvolio ripping off his trousers with a manic grin to reveal yellow fishnet tights with an impressive codpiece was a moment to treasure.

I wish this production had been around when I did Twelfth Night for O-level. Propeller have the power to make Shakespeare come alive for a new generation of school children – if only they can be persuaded into the theatres.

To make a sublime performance perfect, we were treated to Tony Bell singing and playing the violin in the Watermill’s garden in the interval. Bliss.


From the Newbury Weekly News.

The boys dun good

Twelfth Night fun, games and belly-laughs at Bagnor

Propeller: Twelfth Night, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, June 30

As much as The Taming of The Shrew didn't press our right buttons last year, this Twelfth Night revival, ending their two-show tour at The Watermill, is right on the money. It is everything that makes Ed Hall's all-male Propeller company of actor/musicians - with their trademark physicality and rnusicality - so engaging. The wardrobes, with their foxed-mirrors and dust sheets that make up the set of the dark Shrew take a lighter turn for Twelfth Night.

Viola and her brother Sebastian both believe the other twin to have drowned at sea. In Illyria, disguised as a page, Viola is sent by Duke Orsino (Jack Tarlton), the boss she loves, to woo Dugald Bruce Lockhart's Olivia (all chiffon and shimmer), on whom he has a crush. But the lady falls for the messenger.

Meanwhile, her ludicrously vain and pompous steward Malvolio fancies his own chances with the mistress, leaving himself wide open to the cruel comeuppance engineered by Olivia's maid Maria (Chris Myles in Rocky Horror mode) which, without revealing too much for those yet to see it, culminates in the big, butch Bob Barrett striking a pose in yellow fishnets, leather codpiece and a ridiculous grin.

If you're lost now, things take a turn for the worse when Sebastian - Propeller's fine-boned and cheeky baby of the company, Joe Flynn - fetches up on the scene in a clever closet-switch.

All ends well, of course, but it's a tangled web they weave and you have to get your head around the gender-swapping, what with a man playing a woman who is disguised as a man - not that it's hard, with the beautiful Tarn Williams in the role of Viola, and the ease with which this experienced cast of 12 deliver the rich Shakespearean language. From their mouths, it's all perfectly understandable.

Jason Baughan's Toby Belch - Olivia's machinating cousin - was all you could want from the debauched drunkard, outrageously brash and bawdy, he slid across the stage on his own vomit, with Simon Scardifield's nice-but-dim Sir Andrew Agucheek his foil, and egged on by the (always) superb Tony Bell as the fool Feste.

The comedy elicited genuine belly-laughs from a coachload of nice young things from an Oxford school and from an Old Basing man whose son had tech-ed for the company at his Aussie theatre and rang Dad to say that he just had to see these guys. Two seats down, Joe Flynn's relatives didn't flinch as he bared all under the spotlight.

That's why we love Propeller at The Watermill. It's the unexpected.

This double tour with The Taming of the Shrew may be a co-production with Kevin Spacey's Old Vic, but the company grew here on Bagnor soil. Now everyone wants a ticket. Twelfth Night was practically sold out from day one.


There is also a review of Twelfth Night by The Stage ("hugely entertaining performances that may not match the Bards intentions but offer unexpected insights in the playing").