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Bold approach to the Bard

PUBLISHED: 08:45 15 February 2011 | UPDATED: 10:47 17 February 2011

Propeller

Propeller

Manuel Harlan, Manuel Harlan, Manuel Harlan

It's Shakespeare — but not as you know it. The Propeller Theatre Company return to Norwich Theatre Royal next week with two bold new productions of the Comedy of Errors and Richard III. EMMA LEE has a sneak preview.

Walking into the green room of the Lyceum theatre in Sheffield is like accidentally stumbling into an episode of Glee.

It’s a couple of hours before the curtain rises on Propeller’s evening performance of the Comedy of Errors and the cast are already assembled, warming up food in the microwave and warming up their vocal chords – in this case with a rousing rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean.

Propeller, the all-male Shakespeare company whose artistic director is renowned stage and screen director Edward Hall, make a welcome return to Norwich Theatre Royal next week.

Taking two productions out on the road in tandem, they’ll be alternating between Comedy of Errors and Richard III during their five days in residence.

The productions have caused great excitement among theatre critics and Going Out was invited to meet some of the cast and have a sneak preview of Comedy of Errors.

It’s Shakespeare – but it’s nothing like you remember it from school.

Hall, who heads up Hampstead Theatre and whose TV credits include Kingdom and Spooks, injects plenty of fear and horror into his bloodthirsty Richard III, taking the Hammer horror films as his inspiration for the story of the villainous king who murders his way to the throne.

And his bravura take on the Comedy of Errors sees the action set in a holiday resort in the 1980s.

The story follows two pairs of twins, Antipholus of Syracuse and Antipholus of Ephesus and their servants Dromio of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus who are separated from their siblings at birth and create mayhem when they are united on a small island after a shipwreck.

It’s a fantastic production – hilarious and stylish. There’s a nod to Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet and a, well, let’s say very cheeky surprise.

The cast of the play are never off duty. And the fourth wall between the actors and the audience is virtually non-existent – it’s as if you’re part of the show. When you arrive in the auditorium the football-shirt clad and sombrero wearing players are lounging around on stage and a policeman patrols the stalls making sure that theatregoers have their mobiles switched off.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart is playing Sir Richard Ratcliffe in Richard III and Antipholus of Sryacuse, the root of the confusion, in Comedy of Errors and Jon Trenchard is playing Lady Anne in Richard III and Dromio of Ephesus in Comedy of Errors.

Dugald, who last appeared in Norwich last year as Hannay in the 39 Steps, has done almost every Propeller tour since 1998, and this is Jon’s third tour.

They describe Propeller’s take on Shakespeare as both “reverent and irreverent”. And the creative process is a collaborative effort.

“It’s a true ensemble in the sense that Edward is the 15th actor and we are the 14 extra directors. It’s very definitely a mutual relationship,” says Dugald.

“Hopefully that comes across on stage,” adds Jon. “It gives us a feeling of ownership. Edward likes us to improvise a bit. The tour we are doing is quite long, we started rehearsing at the end of October. It keeps the plays alive for us if we can collaborate and improvise.”

And they don’t just collaborate on the words, but the music too. Richard III is accompanied by madrigals, arranged by Jon. The Comedy of Errors has a resident mariachi band and the actors are on stage, even if their character isn’t involved in a scene.

“We’re all making music and sound effects,” says Jon. “Edward quite often casts so that you have a bigger role in one [play] and smaller in the other. Richard Crothier is playing Richard III and is playing the Duke in Comedy, but the rest of the time he’s going to be playing the music.”

Propeller is known for its bold interpretations of the classics and, as the pair explain, they’ve taken a no-holds-barred approach to their latest productions.

“Richard III is very, very bloody,” says Jon. “A lot of the killings that normally happen off stage happen on stage. And then you’ve got the old religious music and madrigals, in stark contrast to this Victorian hospital idea.”

“That’s the joy with this company,” adds Dugald. “Comedy of Errors is set in the 80s. These strangers bring chaos and everyone loses their mind.”

Describing Propeller’s approach to Shakespeare, Edward Hall has said: “We don’t want to make the plays ‘accessible’, as this implies that they need dumbing down in order to be understood, which they don’t. We want to continue to take our work to as many different kinds of audiences as possible, and so to grow as artists and people.”

Both actors admire Hall’s ability to both engage newcomers to Shakespeare and give afficionados a fresh take on plays which are hundreds of years old.

“Someone came up to me and said ‘who wrote it?’ Well, Shakespeare did,” says Dugald.

“It’s so rewarding that people are getting it,” says Jon.

“When you’ve got 500 A-level students going mad saying ‘we love Shakespeare’ you know you’ve done some-thing right,” says Dugald.

n Propeller stage Comedy of Errors at Norwich Theatre Royal on February 15 and 17-19, 7.30pm (also 2pm Sat), Richard III is performed on February 16 and 19, 7.30pm (also 2pm Thurs), £22-£5.50, 01603 630000, www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk

www.propeller.org.uk

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