Shakespeare, gender and unorthodox rehearsals with Ed Hall

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Director Edward Hall is best known for creating the all-male theatre company, Propeller, who perform Shakespeare plays, re-imagined to relate to a contemporary audience. However when I ask him about it he describes the iconic Propeller as an “accidental theatre company”.  Having initially approached the works of the ‘bard’ with trepidation and “a degree of fear”, his first production of Othello made him realise that he didn’t want to fit into such traditional constraints. “Why can’t we cut loose a bit?” he asks. His production of Henry V was his first foray into this, and by the time the group were onto their third all male Shakespeare, they thought they might as well put a name to what was becoming a company. “It’s a company that was created by the work.”
Touring is an intrinsic part of the company, flying between the likes of Bangladesh and Sweden. I ask about the different performance experiences that must breed but Ed is quick to tell me that “it’s not the difference of the audience, it’s the similarity. You get the same laughs in Jakarta as you get in Plymouth.” The company often tours two shows simultaneously alongside each other. There is no specific method to how Ed chooses the two plays, though he prefers to focus on their differences than their similarities. Sometimes pairing a better known title with a more obscure one is a good way to encourage people to see the lesser known play. “They come back to see the actors,” he says. Doing two plays alongside each other also has implications for casting, meaning that actors can end up playing two very roles on alternate evenings, certainly one way to keep performing interesting from night to night. The company has a very loyal ethos. Once an actor has worked for the company, they are automatically offered a place in the next production. When recruiting new actors, Ed looks for people who are “willing to bring as much to the table as possible.”
The all male nature of the cast is “a nod to the original practises of the day, but only a nod”, he assures me, and it is combined with a “modern aesthetic”. The rural pastoral setting of the latter half of ‘The Winter’s Tale’ is turned into a bohemian festival reminiscent of Glastonbury with wellies and guitars peppering the landscape.
I ask him if he thinks an all-female company could do a similar thing but he reminds me not to generalise. “That’s how that group of human beings did that play at that time,” he corrects, no female company or male company is the same as any other. What the single gender nature of the company does allow is a “deliberate reminder to the audience that what they’re watching is not real”. The imagination must work harder and there is a greater emphasis on the process of acting, of playing a part, of suspending disbelief.
Rehearsals are a very collaborative process, and the actors are afforded a lot of creative freedom. “I want to know what everybody’s ideas are,” Ed tells me. He and the designer will work on the general concept, so the actors are given “an arena to play inside”, and rehearsals can veer between noisy chaos and meticulous textual work. “Every little shift in the text involves the rhythm of the actors,” and so their complete comprehension of every textual detail is essential to their understanding of their characters and the atmosphere and world they are creating onstage. One play demanded five weeks of daily army training for the actors out on Clapham Common, hardly an orthodox rehearsal technique perhaps, but they were “exactly where they needed to be do the play”.  Richard III is a particularly good memory for Ed and one of his favourite productions. “We found how we wanted to do it in the first rehearsal,” he tells me, and it was “really quite extreme in the collision of comedy and intense violence.”
As well as his work with Propeller, Ed is the artistic director at Hampstead Theatre in London. Working with new writing, this is a very different side of theatre but one which he enjoys just as much.  However it doesn’t stop him dreaming and he has a very specific vision in mind – “I would like to do the late plays on an uninhabited island off the west coast of Scotland.” Playing inside and outside, he envisions the audience being shipped over on boats for the weekend.
With such an extensive career I ask what advice he has for budding directors who might want to follow in his footsteps. “The best way of learning is by getting in the chair and doing it,” he says, advocating making the most of every opportunity you can get. “Listen,” he finishes,” because you never stop learning.”
IMAGE/ Edward Hall in rehearsals for Henry V

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