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Propeller puts an old spin back on the Bard

British theater company and Hideki Noda returns Shakespeare plays to their raucous roots

by Nobuko Tanaka

“Propeller may be another English group of actors doing a play by their compatriot, Shakespeare, but this is something quite different. How different? . . . Well, you will understand what I mean if you see it!”

Playwright, director and actor Hideki Noda, who offered that intriguing quote the other day, is one of the most important figures in Japanese contemporary theater. But he made the comment from his position as the new artistic director of the publicly funded Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro — where, to the astonishment of all, he has singled out the British all-male Propeller theater company to stage his debut production.

Founded in 1997 by theater director Edward Hall, Propeller may be virtually unknown in Japan, but back home and elsewhere it has built a solid reputation. In 2002, Hall, now 41, was nominated for a Best Director Laurence Olivier Award for “Rose Rage,” his Propeller adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”; while in 2007 he and his company won a prestigious OBIE (Off-Broadway Theater Award bestowed by The Village Voice) for their “Taming of The Shrew.”

But we’re not talking proto- Establishment here, as anyone would realize after having seen the barking-mad-looking actor yelling from the handbill promoting the upcoming double bill of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Merchant of Venice.”

So who are they, these Propeller people who Noda (himself a singular sort) calls “quite different?” And why has Noda given them the important role of launching his career as an artistic director? I flew to England to find out.

Under the lovely blue skies of early summer amid the picture-postcard beauty of the Cotswold hills, I caught up with Propeller at the Everyman Theatre in Cheltenham, about 150 km west of London. This town, built of amber stone and famed for its racecourse and posh girls school, was just another stop on the company’s hectic world tour with its chosen Shakespeare comedies. Since starting in December in Poole, on the English south coast, Propeller had already spun through several British venues, completed a two-month run at their home base of the Watermill Theatre in Newbury (another racecourse town west of London), played in Italy in Rome and Milan, and then crossed the Atlantic to New York.

Back in Cheltenham, a month before curtain up in Tokyo, I took in the truly hilarious “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at a matinee performance enlivened by the full-volume giggling of hundreds of school children — and that barking-mad -looking actor, who turned out to be playing the character Bottom. Then, in the evening, I marveled along with a rapt audience at “The Merchant of Venice.” Afterward, reflecting the positive media reaction wherever the double bill has played, most people stayed behind for a memorably informative and entertaining Q&A session that lasted till almost 11 p.m.

It was after seeing the matinee that I thought I’d found the first answer to Noda’s riddle, and — without giving the game away — I’m sure, as he said, that you will understand if you see it! Indeed, having watched these two plays by Propeller beforehand on DVD, I can vouch with certainty that seeing the live performances leaves those two-dimensional versions, well, looking rather flat.

Primarily, that’s because Propeller show off their true colors in the flesh best live and up close. Fairy Puck’s coquettish expression is a joy to behold while cynical jokes about foreigners speaking English in one scene of “The Merchant of Venice” are a study in sardonic British humor.

All this, together with live music performed by actors on stage, and speeches directed at the audience, brought to mind how it must have been when the Bard’s works were performed at the Globe Theatre in 17th-century London. Namely, though viewing Shakespeare today is often regarded as an intellectual challenge, and people may sometimes leave a theater tired after hours of watching something they had not really relished, it’s great to be reminded by Propeller that his works were written to be enjoyed by all comers — and that there’s no time to get tired when they’re on stage.

Although Hall, Propeller’s founder, was too busy for an interview in Cheltenham, in a phone call recently he talked about his view of today’s theater and his own roots in the heart of the British drama world.

“This is how I think Shakespeare supposed theater to be,” Hall said, explaining that “most of his audiences didn’t read or write, so even though he presents complicated dialogues, at the end of a speech he sums up what you need to know if you didn’t understand all the complications. So he wrote for everybody, for all his audiences.

“His plays were mainly performed in noisy outside settings, so there is a robust vaudevillian feel — and then it may someway switch to beautiful poetry. To me, he has energy and vitality, and we love that. And, as Propeller, we try to bring that out. Shakespeare’s plays were full of wonderful irony and comedy, and they teach us about our own nature. And he still has great things to tell us about politics, ethics, morality, power, corruption — big themes that never go away and (which) affect our lives every day. He also shows the tragic inevitability of mad(ness) and fate, and for me the study of his stories is a way of studying the world around us.”

Hall is the son of postwar English theater giant Sir Peter Hall, whose mold-breaking stint as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1960 to 1968 toppled class barriers that ring fenced “the arts,” before he moved on to fill that role for the National Theatre from 1973 to 1988.

Despite growing up immersed in theater, the younger Hall’s first creative venture was not on stage but via a recording studio he ran in London. But then, sure enough, he was drawn to stage direction around the city at such venues as the Hampstead and Royal Court theaters as well as the RSC, before launching Propeller in its old riverside mill building, now converted into its Watermill Theatre.

“We are an ensemble,” Hall said of Propeller. “All the actors have a permanent place in the company and everyone is paid the same wages and everyone works equally hard. The actors make the scene changes, they make the music and play instruments. So it’s really an actors’ company like Shakespeare’s company was. I enjoy exploring Shakespeare’s plays in this style that gives all the performances back to the actors and makes them the most important thing. By doing this, I just want to make an evening watching Propeller’s show a little bit more of an event.”

Why had Hall gone down a rather classic theater road and formed his company with male actors only?

“Well,” he began, explaining how it affects the audience’s experience, “in Shakespeare, when somebody feels something, they describe it brilliantly, and I always say to the actors that ‘you must describe your feelings,’ and ‘you don’t need to feel it.’ When two men are playing the parts, very obviously, the only thing they can do is describe the feelings, and they don’t physically show them, so they talk about it. That’s far more interesting to watch, because you are listening to the nature of their relationship. You don’t have to think, ‘Does the actor playing Juliet really love the actor playing Romeo? Is their chemistry real?’ Because of course it’s not. They don’t have to be, as it’s theater.

“So, I think an all-male cast works well for Shakespeare because it helps you focus more on the relationships and the psychology of the relationships.”

As for what’s brought Propeller all the way to Japan this time, it turns out that Hall and his host, Noda, go back some 15 years — to when Hall visited Japan on a Japanese government grant to study and work in local theater and took one of Noda’s workshops in Tokyo. They’ve been in touch ever since, and one day Hall said he’d like to return with Propeller and also work here with both British and Japanese actors.

“I love [Hideki's] energy and color of imagination and his ability with metaphors, visually and philosophically — I think it’s brilliant. I like the fact that in Japanese theater, nothing is naturalistic. You get an extraordinary expressionism.”

For those who will catch Propeller’s upcoming Tokyo double bill, and see just how Shakespeare turns out influenced by the non-naturalistic metaphor magic of Japan, I can say for sure that an extraordinarily expressive treat awaits — something, as Noda puts it, “Quite different.” You’ll understand if you see it.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream”/”The Merchant of Venice” run till July 12 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space, a 3-min. walk from JR Ikebukuro Station. Programs differ every day. There is Japanese earphone guide service. For more details, call the Art Space at (03) 5985-1707 or visit www.geigeki.jp Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at thestage.cocolog-nifty.com