‘unambiguously, unashamedly, unpretentiously hilarious’
When I was a child, I couldn’t understand why half of Shakespeare’s plays were described as “comedies”; they seemed so resolutely unfunny. I wish I could have seen Propeller back then – because whatever else you might think of their Midsummer Night’s Dream, it’s unambiguously, unashamedly, unpretentiously hilarious. There’s one particular scene which might just be the most entertaining five minutes I’ve ever spent in a theatre, and if they just stood and read from scripts for the rest of the running time, it would still be worth the ticket price for those moments of joy alone.
But of course, that’s not what they do. The director’s notes highlight a “rigorous approach to the text”, but his style and presentation are unashamedly modern. The piece is filled with bold, striking images – and it’s performed very much in three dimensions, with actors clambering and capering on ledges across the backdrop. The literal high point comes when Oberon and Titania first confront each other, perched on matching thrones far above the other actors’ heads, divided by the chasm of the stage.
The physicality of Propeller’s performance adds a lot to the humour, but it has a serious edge to it too. Joseph Chance’s Puck delivers just the right mix of the carefree and the sinister. The Rude Mechanicals are re-invented with a dash of Dad’s Army, though their comic play-within-a-play arguably suffers a little in comparison to the earlier scenes. And it’s all set off by an appropriately other-worldly soundscape – intriguingly created by the actors, live on stage.
But of course, Propeller’s work is best known for a completely different reason: specifically that the actors are all men. And surprisingly, it’s here that the sense of effortless coherence begins to break down, with their approach to Shakespeare’s women feeling distinctly variable. At one end of the scale, Will Featherstone plays Hippolyta convincingly as a female, while James Tucker’s punkish Titania is a fascinating creation – the perfect equal for Darrel Brockis’ magnificent, half-crazed Oberon. But with other characters, the gender inversion seems more of a parody, and seeing a male actor mincing and flouncing is a major part of the humour.
Humour, perhaps, is enough. But you can’t quite divorce Propeller’s concept from the gender politics of our modern day – and I’d been hoping for something more than that, some surprising sudden insights which a mixed cast simply couldn’t provide. As it is, I’m not sure they do quite enough to justify their most defining artistic decision. Still, this has to rate as one of the most entertaining Midsummer Night’s Dreams you’re ever likely to have – and a comedy that proves itself still worthy of the name.
Reviewer: Richard Stamp (Seen 16 April)
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