“A manly enterprise”
Propeller’s 2013/14 tour sees them revive their productions ofThe Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the latter kicking things off in a few venues this winter before the former joins it in rep early next year. The all-male Shakespeare company has rightfully garnered considerable praise for its innovative ensemble-driven approach to the Bard’s works but returning to this interpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, previously seen in 2003 and 2009, sees them lose a little of that special magic that they have previously brought to bear.
Located in a Victorian attic of sorts, the story of the course of true love is surprisingly leaden in a protracted first half which fails to reveal any real sense of purpose to Edward Hall’s production. The ducal court is dull with a criminally insipid Hippolyta, any character that does arrive in Will Featherstone’s performance is too little too late; there’s a quartet of curiously bloodless lovers, with only Dan Wheeler’s Helena really standing out; and the Rude Mechanicals are serviceable but little more. Joseph Chance’s Wizard of Oz-inspired Puck really is the saving grace with his supple slyness.
After the interval though, the comedy of the piece finally clicks into gear much more successfully, thanks to the braces-twanging antics of the lovers’ quarrel and a genuinely hilarious show-stopping strop from Alasdair Craig’s Flute in a chaotic take on Pyramus and Thisbe. Darrell Brockis and James Tucker’s warring Oberon and Titania (looking like refugees from Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake) bring a much-needed intensity which makes the fairy world the most compelling aspect of the show, Chris Myles’ Bottom amusing as he is kept prisoner by the smitten Titania.
Not everything has to be about sex and violence but where the Globe and the Open Air Theatre respectively had huge success recently in playing up these elements, Propeller’s take feels slightly anaemic by not bringing anything else to the table. The music – customarily one of their strengths – fails to really anchor the play in either time or mood, the possibilities of Michael Pavelka’s set and its suspended chairs are rarely exploited to their fullest, and the show just misses much of the inventiveness with which this company often imbues such oft-seen characters.
Strange choices also abound. In a show that casts its regal couples separately, it seems bizarre that Matthew McPherson has to double as Hermia and Snug, a choice which has a real impact later on, and the palpable sense of magic that permeates the final scene is rudely interrupted before Puck’s closing words, almost completely breaking the spell. The tour is in its early days so it may well be that performances matures and the production deepens but in a year when the Globe set the bar magnificently high, Stafford Castle and Tooting Arts Club brought great fun to the table and even Michael Grandage did a good, if not spectacular, job, it is hard not to feel somewhat disappointed for the very first time by Propeller.