Twelfth Night Propelle(re)d into my good books

So perhaps I’ve missed the boat on Propeller, the all-male Shakespeare theatre company. Well, yes, of course I have, everyone’s been going on about them for years and I’ve only just seen them (there’s definitely a pun in “missing the boat” and “propeller”, by the way, I just can’t see it right now, answers in the comments thread please). In the sense that this is a review I could drag out the verdict to the end but I really can’t be bothered, they’re really very good (not good enough for a “blown away” pun though). I didn’t like Twelfth Night, now I do, so they didn’t do badly.

Their angle on Twelfth Night is creative and fun if not ground breaking. But really, what ground do we really need to break with Shakespeare? A great show is a great show. Their all-male cast no doubt continues to agitate some but, as my first view of an all-male Shakespeare, I was really rather pleased with it. The female characters generally allowed me to forget that they were men in dresses. I mean, they obviously were, I wasn’t going to be swaggering up to them in the bar afterwards, but with my suspension-of-disbelief hat on (it’s purple) I really was drawn in and comfortable with these men-as-women, perhaps the more so because it was a comedy. I didn’t entirely buy Joseph Chance as Viola, but “a man playing a woman playing a man” is perhaps just one step too many for my tiny mind.

In a comedy I generally gravitate to the buffoon, but nonetheless I must say that I felt that Vince Leigh’s Sir Toby stole the show somewhat and I’m now going to chase him down and see what he’s in next as he has quite the stage presence. Liam O’Brien had a great time with Feste as well (oh dear, I really am just going for giggles aren’t I?). There were times (one moment in act 2 scene 5 stands out) when they played it OTT and the moment was spoiled slightly for me, but generally speaking it was pitch-perfect comedy, well acted. The pace and energy were high throughout and I hardly have a critical word for any member of the cast.

The staging was excellent, although slightly hampered by their first performance on a raked stage (scenery on wheels with no brakes). A few simple items of scenery are arranged and rearranged to create a surprising variety of environments. It’s a small complaint but once or twice I found myself spotting things in the wings through mirrored props. The ensemble are used to good effect to bring the scenes to life and keep things busy, their costumes making them pleasantly anonymous and thus non-distracting in their masks.

The use of sound throughout was marvellous. The whole ensemble played an instrument of some form or another at some point and it added to the atmosphere wonderfully, although again there were times I felt it was distracting and I found myself thinking about the sound rather than the lines or watching the ensemble member with his instrument rather than the actor doing his thing. These were rare moments and I wouldn’t sacrifice this vital element of the show to improve my concentration for a second.

One criticism which may seem silly to many; I’m a little tired of the “yellow stockings and crossed garters as cross-dressing” gag that everyone pulls on Malvolio in modern interpretations. We get it, men don’t wear stockings or garters any more, but when this was written they did and the script doesn’t hold up too well when a company plays it up as a perversion. It’s a lazy, cheap gag and it breaks the production for the time it’s used, every time it’s used.

Overall I’ve been rather impressed by my first experience of Propeller and will certainly be chasing them up again in the future. This is a well paced, entertaining and thoroughly worthwhile take on a 400-year-old play that is worth anyone’s time. They’re touring Twelfth Night with Taming of the Shrew now. I saw them at the Rose in Kingston and if you can find a ticket unsold for the near future (The Rose sold out pretty fast) I would unreservedly recommend buying it.