Watermill - A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice
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Watermill - A Midsummer Night's Dream and The Merchant of Venice

4th March to 2nd May 2009.

From the Daily Telegraph.

Brrr – what a weird time of year to be heading out on tour with A Midsummer Night's Dream. But Propeller theatre company's Dream, first seen in 2003, is weird stuff: an all-male version designed to have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief.

Edward Hall hasn't gathered a cast of androgynous young men in dainty likeness of the "boy-players" of Shakespeare's day. When he gets his cast to cross-dress, they still look like thirtysomething blokes.

There are no fancy wigs, just crew-cuts; when anyone wears lipstick or eye-shadow, they have the air of some half-made-up drag-act.

The stocky white chap playing Hermia (Richard Frame) could pass muster as a prop-forward, while the tall black fellow playing Helena (Babou Ceesay) would happily convince as a basketball team-captain. They easily out-butch Demetrius and Lysander.

And as for Jon Trenchard's Puck – with his stripy red tights, ruby slippers and tutu, he's like a working men's club spoof of Billy Elliot.

Those prepared to run with the conceit end up in a richly unsettling place where the boundaries blur between what's in jest and what's in earnest.

The relationships between the lovers straddle hetero- and homosexual leanings all at once – while also attaining an innocent playfulness that is in keeping with the doltish antics of the mechanicals and the frisky anarchy of the fairies.

Underpinned by marvellous ensemble playing and a beautiful monochrome aesthetic, the all-male approach works far better with Shakespeare's evergreen comedy than it does with The Merchant of Venice, which Hall runs in rep.

When Richard Clothier's Shylock, grizzled and full of gravitas, cries out for his ducats and his daughter, it's easy to wonder whether "daughter" is in inverted commas.

For Trenchard's petite Jessica – as well as the gender-bending Portia and Nerissa – appear to be female-impersonators who've been banged up in a high-security men's prison.

This showy idea makes sense of a violent, claustrophobic Venice in which money is in short supply, and nefarious deals are struck. But it lends a fatal air of contrivance to the Belmont scenes and the infamous trial.

And having Shylock gouge one of his Christian tormenters' eyes out is a spurious step too far.

The company, talented to a man, do their damnedest, but when a play that already needs special pleading collides with such extravagant directorial interpolation, it becomes hard to see the wood for the trees.

DOMINIC CAVENDISH

From the Guardian.

Four stars / Five stars
If there are better productions of these plays this year, or even in the next few years, I will be astonished. Edward Hall's superb, all-male company Propeller proves again the value of a true ensemble and a director who treats Shakespeare's plays as if they'd just been written.

This production of the Dream is not entirely new: it dates back to the highly acclaimed staging at the Watermill in Newbury in 2003. But it remains a delight from its opening moments, when Jon Trenchard's naughty, tutu-clad Puck is glimpsed upside-down, waving his stripey legs and ruby slippers in the air. This is a production full of mischief, where the cast's white long-johns and corsets suggest something of the asylum straitjacket.

Hall's Dream offers a skewed, surreal and occasionally quite dotty vision. It even sounds odd, full of clicks, whistles and rattles. The fairies are a camp, Busby Berkeley chorus, and the mechanicals behave like a suburban am-dram company who allow backstage tiffs to spill into on-stage drama. Richard Frame's brilliant, lovelorn Hermia grabs on to Lysander and slides down him as if down a steel pole: I would have cried if I hadn't been laughing so much.

The Merchant could not be more of a contrast. It is tough, bitter and unyielding. But, as in the Dream, there are worlds within worlds operating here. Michael Pavelka's design has Venice as an all-male prison reeking of heat, testosterone, racial prejudice and pent-up violence. The duke becomes the prison governor, and Portia and Nerissa are feminised male prisoners.

Initially, you wonder whether this might be a concept too far. In fact, it fits the play like a glove. It is starkly contemporary, but there are multiple references here, too: most notably, the ritualised play-acting of Genet's The Maids, particularly in the casket scenes; also the confined agony of Sartre's Huis Clos, where hell is other people from whom no escape is possible.

The result is revelatory, highlighting the play's racial tensions, grounding it in a world where only money has any value and teasing out the underlying sexual politics in a way that is both intellectually lucid and emotionally devastating. Kelsey Brookfield's extraordinary Portia is imprisoned not only by real bars, but also by those constructed by her father, and by her love for Bassanio, which is quite clearly going to cause her grief. This production is spot-on in every way.

LYN GARDNER

From The Times.

Four stars
Happy birthday to Propeller, Edward Hall’s 10-year-old all-male troupe: athletic, sophisticated and unnervingly versatile. The Dream fizzes with invention, agility and boisterous humour too generous to be patronising. This is still one of the best plays ever written about the theatre, and Hall’s boys show you all the virtues and flaws of the trade — the eagerness to be someone else, the need to shine, the passion for perfection, the touching combination of modesty and vanity. They understand the realism of fantasy, how, in the theatre, imagination and reality work together, creating their own world of truth through deception. The all-male casting has a special role here: men playing women give you an unsettling picture of what it’s like to be a woman in a man’s world.

The Merchant is a brilliant shocker. It is performed by the inmates of a vast jail. The whole play becomes a symbol of grimy corruption. Nobody is clean, not even Antonio or Portia. Belmont is just as corrupt; Nerissa is paid to make sure that Bassanio chooses the right box. (The money is stored in a lavatory cistern.) Unlike in the Dream, the female roles have a feel of butch transvestism: brutality is stronger than sex. The pompous purist in me takes exception to any little fiddling with the text, and to the scene where Shylock (Richard Clothier) puts out Salerio’s eye, but the production as a whole is a cruelly convincing cohesion. Bob Barrett is the star of the double bill, playing a hard, resentful Antonio, a self-pitying old fruit, lonely but watchful, and a lovably self-admiring Bottom, a village lothario. Kelsey Brookfield (snooty Snout and bitchy Portia) is a serious talent.

I hope he has a trustworthy agent. I liked John Dougall’s superbly stacked Thisbe, like Katie Price with a beard.

JOHN PETER

From the Independent.

Four stars
Denmark’s a prison in Hamlet and so too, now, is Venice in The Merchant. Edward Hall’s striking production for his all-male Propeller touring company looks good behind bars, creating a neutral setting of confinement and inquisition that suits the play surprisingly well.

The concept is not cluttered with framing the action: the characters emerge from the ranks, as though acquiring identities they hadn’t previously considered. So, Portia and Nerissa – a conspiratorial pairing of Kelsey Brookfield and Chris Myles – wear corsets and high heels as well as braces and chinos. The caskets are illuminated on a prison table, suggesting the outside “other world” of Belmont.

Portia is as much imprisoned by her father’s conditions of choosing a suitor as is Jessica (played as a jailbird skivvy in a headscarf by Jon Trenchard) by Shylock’s domestic tyranny. The racist stand-off between the moneylender and the Christians is highlighted in this environment, where feuds can fester; Richard Clothier’s Shylock gathers force in isolation, turning violent in “Hath not a Jew eyes?” and showing finally that if you live by the letter of the law you may perish by it, too.

“Which is the Christian, which the Jew?” is Portia’s question in the courtroom scene, where Bob Barrett’s puzzled Antonio, his fortune lost at sea against all odds, is helplessly incarcerated. The same question is asked at the top of the play, establishing the idea that we exist in thoughts and deeds, not appearances. Those who insist on outward show – such as the vainglorious suitors of Morocco and Aragon, hilariously played by Jonathan Livingstone and Thomas Padden – pay a price.

Michael Pavelka’s design of a three-tiered prison with mobile cages and basic furniture, cunningly lit by Ben Ormerod, allows for shape-shifting fluency in performance, the cast of 14 humming and joshing in the background when not focused centre stage.

It’s not fashionable to think of The Merchant as one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays, but I think it is, and its qualities of mercy, as well as humanity, tolerance and friendship, stand out in a fine relief in this inspired, intelligent revival. And the female roles reverberate more fully for being played by boys, for whom they were written.

MICHAEL COVENY

From Newbury Theatre.

For a new Shakespeare production, it seems to be essential to come up with a fresh angle. You could imagine a brainstorming session for The Merchant of Venice: “Any ideas for the setting?” “How about 1930s Nazi Germany?” “Mm... maybe not for Merchant... anyway, it’s been done before.” “How about setting it in a prison? It could be a metaphor for... er...” “For us all being imprisoned by our own prejudices?” “Brilliant! Let’s run with it.”

So the tiny Watermill stage is filled with barred prison cells. It didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t detract from what is really a stunning production.

Richard Clothier is a reasonable, likeable Shylock; the sort of man you’d be happy to chat to in the pub, but maybe not be best friends with. Bob Barrett’s Antonio, in contrast, is angry and resentful, and Jack Tarlton’s Bassanio needs to be very easy-going to be best friends with him.

At first I feared that Kelsey Brookfield, as Portia, was going to be too camp, but not so. This is a fine portrayal of Portia as an intelligent but inexperienced woman with lots of guts, and forms a great double act with Chris Moyles as Nerissa, with nipples artistically highlighted by his braces.

The roll call of excellent performances goes on: Jon Trenchard as a confused and frightened Jessica; Jonathan Livingstone as a bouncily confident Morocco; John Dougall as a dour and cynical Gobbo. My only reservation was with Richard Dempsey’s somewhat over-theatrical Lorenzo, contrasting with the naturalness of the others.

I thoroughly recommend this lively and exciting production. If you think Shakespeare’s not for you, come to Bagnor and be converted.

Of the four interlocking threads in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Bottom / Quince / Pyramus / Thisbe thread is the humorous one, but in Propeller’s production the antics of the lovers raised the most laughs, as Richard Frame (Hermia) and Babou Ceesay (Helena) worked themselves up into a hilarious quick-fire forest frenzy.

Oberon (Richard Clothier) and Titania (Richard Dempsey) deserved each other; Oberon – relaxed, almost bored – contrasted with a beautifully portrayed Titania, neurotic and waspish.

The mechanicals’ slapstick foolery was fine; Bottom’s teeth get a bigger credit in the programme than Bottom himself.

For me, the big surprise, and delight, was Jon Trenchard’s Puck: a spiteful and petulant imp (although I couldn’t get Baldrick out of my mind), taking gleeful joy in the mistakes of the foolish mortals.

PAUL SHAVE

From the Newbury Weekly News.

Bagnor boys show form

Prison setting for Propeller production of The Merchant of Venice

Propeller: The Merchant of Venice/A Midsummer Night's Dream, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until May 2

Edward Hall's all-male Propeller, born and bred in Bagnor 10 years ago, may have left home, but they are now back at The Watermill - sporting crewcuts all - in tandem performances of the best Shakespeare you're likely to see this year - a revival of the 2003 A Midsummer Night's Dream and a new production of The Merchant of Venice.

Their productions have, up until now, been grown by The Watermill, designed for those word-receptive walls and expanded for national and international touring, but this time they have been nurtured elsewhere, toured to larger-scale venues and scaled down for the 'mill. With varied success.

The ensemble of 14 new Props and veterans - boys who play boys and play girls who are boys - were quiet brilliant and seeing the productions back-to-back, on consecutive nights revealed their true craft in handling character-change with total commitment and ease. Take Bob Barrett, for instance, who romped through one evening as the lovable buffoon Bottom, and was a convincingly hard Antonio the next.

The most successful of the two plays is The Merchant - an uncompromising and pacy production in an inspired set of prison cells, restraining the macho, violent culture that is a metaphor for Venice, the inmates' rhythmic tapping of the bars heightening the sense of menace and racial tension.

New recruit Kelsey Brookfield is one to watch, solid on his high heels and turning in an admirable performance as the gutsy Portia, supported by corset-clad staple of Propeller productions, Chris Myles, as Nerissa.

While inventive, A Midsummer Night's Dream fares less well, as its monochrome set hasn't sized down comfortably for the Watermill stage - claustrophobic and busy, it confuses the quick-switch, interlocking plots.

Those who saw Propeller's first Dream will remember both its simplicity and Simon Scardifield's appearance in striped tights and tutu. Jon Trenchard reprises the dress this time, playing Robin Goodfellow in a delightfully malicious manner, flitting among a cast in long Johns and jockstraps, to and from a fairyworld resembling the land of the undead - unlike the press night audience who seemed definitely dead, and determined to make the company work overtime for their laughs.

How much easier it was for the testosterone-fuelled 'Merchants' the following night, when they were able to interplay with a couple of lively coachloads from Cheltenham Ladies College.

TRISH LEE