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On a wing and a prayer

When a bunch of guys hang out together without any female influence to soften them up, a gang mentality inevitably develops.

So it is with Propeller Theatre, the company founded by Edward Hall in 1997 to produce Shakespeare’s canon acted exclusively by men.

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The evidence of 14 years of male bonding can be gleaned this week when Propeller fly into Edinburgh with The Comedy of Errors and Richard III, two radically different plays requiring equally apposite approaches. In keeping with their thoroughly modern aesthetic, Hall and the Propeller boys have opted to lace Richard III with a touch of Victorian Gothic, whereby the man who would be king marches through what might be a mental asylum. For The Comedy of Errors, Hall has taken the company’s all lads together approach to the limit by setting it on a cheap and cheerful 1980s package tour in some equally cut-price Mediterranean resort.

“I remembered what it was like,” says Hall, “scarpering off to Tenerife or Magaluf with your mates. One minute the sun’s shining and everybody’s having this enormous laugh. The next, things go horribly wrong and everything’s a mess.”

Hall’s approach to Shakespeare is refreshingly laid-back. He isn’t shy about dragging, what are still misinterpreted in some quarters as sacred texts, kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

“These two plays are polar opposites,” he says, “even though they were both written about the same time. To think that the same guy wrote them both is quite a thrill, and I’m interested in finding the different dynamics in them, and it’s really quite exciting seeing them shoved up against each other in this way. The clue’s in the title with The Comedy of Errors, behind all the silliness is this really soulful story about someone looking for his other half. So it’s a lovely mix, and the trick is to try and bring out the soul of the play alongside the anarchy.

“Richard III, on the other hand, is the last of Shakespeare’s history cycle of plays, and we’ve set it in a Victorian hospital, which is almost like this Hammer House of Horror-style place. I’ve never actually done a formal Shakespeare in the conventional sense, because I think you have to try and define what it is he was doing with his work.

“You know, there’s no such thing really as a Shakespeare history play. He made his plays ferociously modern, and if he was around today I think this is the sort of thing he’d be doing. The thing is to find an aesthetic that fits, and remind yourself that it isn’t real, and that people in Shakespeare talk to the audience.”

This may be one of the reasons why Propeller have male actors playing all of Shakespeare’s women, as was the case when the bard himself was alive. As a device, it’s certainly helped Propeller in terms of developing a unique profile.

“It was an experiment,” Hall says. “I’m interested in taking away the modern equipment and giving everything a sense of purpose. When we did Henry V, we had a chorus of squaddies telling the story of their hero, so when men played women, no-one batted an eyelid. It’s not a weird or extraordinary thing, but it keeps coming up whenever I do interviews.

“When a man plays Hamlet, you’re not sure who he is as a person, but you know he’s acting. When a man plays a woman it’s exactly the same process. You just have to take a leap of imagination.”

Hall isn’t just about Shakespeare, he has directed several episodes of Spooks, the long-running labyrinthine TV drama concerning espionage and skullduggery in high places.

“I really enjoy it,” he says. “It’s wonderful fun, even though it’s really hard work and really intense. Shooting in London is probably the hardest place on the planet to film, but the show is fast, it’s modern, it’s pacey and it’s political.”

As the son of Sir Peter Hall and his second wife Jacqueline Taylor, Edward Hall was exposed to theatre at the highest level from an early age. Given that Hall senior founded the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1960, seven years before his son’s birth, one might think having to follow in such a giant of British theatre’s shoes might be daunting. Hall junior sounds unfazed.

“I suppose I went to the theatre more than most people when I was younger,” he says, somewhat understating his case. “But I always remember that even then it seemed like a natural extension to playing.

“It was just that grown-ups did it. Now I’m a father myself I can see all the role-playing that goes on with kids, and that theatre is just a more formal way of doing it. But seeing a lot of theatre when I was young really exposed me to the scarier sides of life. You learn about everything from murder to love.”

In terms of his father’s influence, Hall says: “He’s always been supportive of whatever I’ve done. I think he was worried that things might not work out for me, but I’ve just got my head down and got on with it. If you do something interesting, it’s, oh, he’s Peter Hall’s son, and if you do something bad it becomes a gossipy thing. Regardless of that, I have to maintain my own focus and shut all that stuff out.”

The father and son team worked together on the eight-hour epic, Pantallus, where, according to Hall, “We’d slug it out. We have very different ideas, you have to stick to your guns.”

This is all a far cry from Hall’s directorial debut when still an under-graduate embarking on the rites of passage that is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

We borrowed the money to put it on,” Hall remembers. “We built the set ourselves, and did everything together on a shoestring. There was a real gang mentality to it all.”

All of which sounds not too dissimilar to how Propeller operate today. “Propeller is still very small in feel,” Hall says. “We don’t have lots of layers of management, and everyone gets involved in everything.

“There’s a family feel to things in that way. People who are experts in business management have looked at us and asked us how we manage to do things the way we do. But it’s a free world, and we just get on with doing things the way we do them. I started Propeller with a small group of guys, and we’re still a small group of guys doing much the same thing.”

The Comedy of Errors runs February 22, 24, 26; Richard III runs February 23-26, both at King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, www.fcct.org.uk, www.propeller.org.uk.

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