Get your tickets out for the lads: why do the Arts Council fund Ed Hall’s Propeller?

We’ve had a go at Edward Hall for having an all-male theatre company which benefits from public funding.  But are we being fair?  Have we missed something?

We decided to go in search of the rationale behind Propeller’s all-male policy ……

Our attempts to research all-male theatre groups yielded very little.  If you type ‘all-female theatre groups’ into google, however, you will get a whole host of different companies.  It is also very easy to justify all-female groups.  The situation for young actresses and the difficulty of getting parts is well-known and backed up by recent Equity research.  Hence, a group like the ‘Female Theatre Group’ can quite openly state that promoting female talent is a key part of their mission.

Interestingly, there is a parallel in dance with Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake.  Apart from challenging the rather strange assumption we make that swans should somehow be feminine (why should swans as a species be assigned a single gender at all?) he is also bringing back to prominence the role of the male dancer, a role which some feel has tended to be marginalised in recent years in favour of the prima ballerina. 

For an all-male theatre group it is more difficult.  Unless they are performing Shakespeare.  Then they can use the popularly quoted justification for employing all-male casts:  the fact that in the time of Shakespeare, female parts were played by men.
Can all-male casts really do anything to illuminate Shakespeare?  In an interesting article on the Sheffield Crucible website, Sarah Clough discusses various productions in modern times dating back to the 1960s.  Experimentation with all-male casts is nothing new.  According to some of the examples mentioned by Clough, cross-gender casting tends to put the emphasis on the text and makes the experience more intellectual than visceral, but the downsides can include the temptation to go for cheap laughs, and a loss of subtlety.  Notably, although many companies have put on productions with an all-male cast, few seem to think that the idea is good enough to warrant creating a specialist all male company.  Even when the authentic replica of Shakespeare’s Globe was built, the company was never exclusively male, and in 2003 an all-female company was set up to complement productions where an all-male cast was employed.

One of the examples mentioned by Clough is Cheek by Jowl, a company whose minimalist Macbeth blew us away in March 2010.  True to form, they put on a Macbeth which we thought illuminated the text brilliantly.  Interestingly, that production did have one example of cross-gender casting, replacing the drunken porter with a cheeky, tarty receptionist.  Whilst the idea was a clever one and well executed, it jarred in the production and we felt it was the least successful aspect of it.

So, all male casts are not particularly original, and all-male companies are not particularly popular.  So what is Ed Hall’s motive for creating an exclusively male company to perform Shakespeare?

In an article in the Guardian with the typically provocative title ‘Surely this is a bit poofy?’, Ed Hall attempts to explain the attraction of all-male companies:

“For me,” says Hall, “it started because I directed a production of Othello with a mixed cast and I couldn’t help them to get to the level of metaphor that a poetic play like that demanded.  So when the opportunity came to direct Henry V, I was looking around for some new way of really being true to the text, but also giving it our contemporary response.  The all-male cast unlocked that for me.”

Hall avoids giving any rationale at all.  He seems to be implying that taking women out of the equation forces the audience to view the characters in a less naturalistic way,  just as some of his predecessors have done.   He certainly doesn’t seem to be suggesting that he is following the tradition of Shakespeare’s boy players, who, according to Shakespearean scholar David Kathman tended to be specialists particularly skilled at imitating women.  Yet Hall contradicts himself a couple of paragraphs later by declaring that “on the whole, it’s amazing how little the gender of these characters matter. You just play them as people.”  In which case, why bother cross-casting at all?  And if you are trying to create a distancing effect in the audience, why are the majority of characters still played by the ‘correct’ gender?

There is something rather fallacious in his argument:  he struggled with a ‘mixed’ cast; something worked with an all-male cast; therefore, employing only male actors must be the solution.  Perhaps instinctively he does not delve any deeper, and neither does the interviewer.  Why, exactly ‘couldn’t he help them’?  If our memories of Ed Hall’s 2002 production of Macbeth are anything to go by, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with women, other than turn them into sex objects, and that includes the witches.

That seems to be all the illumination we are going to get from Ed Hall on the subject.  It’s interesting to note that even the tagline on the propeller home page, “Mixing a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic”, has not been invented by him at all, but is lifted from a Guardian review. 

Which brings us on to the question of what, exactly, a ‘modern physical aesthetic’ might look like, and why it has to be exclusively male.  Judging by the reviews of Richard III, a pretty strong picture emerges: as Hall himself says, these productions are ‘as nasty as possible’ and reviewers have quoted influences as wide-ranging as Tarantino, Vaudeville, A Clockwork Orange, torture porn and ‘post-modern’ gothic.  Could it possibly be that the presence of women might inhibit the company from indulging themselves to the full with bloody, gory and dare we say ‘ultra-violent’ action.  Interestingly, the princes in this production are played by puppets, and reading the description of their heads being put in specimen jars is somewhat tempered by pictures of two plastic heads in a bottle.  Hall knows that he couldn’t get away with gory and realistic child murder.  There’s no question that these productions have garnered a string of very enthusiastic reviews, but it is sad to hear one female blogger expressing doubts about the casting of men as women before seeming to shrug her shoulders with the words ‘that’s what they do’.  Well, it doesn’t have to be.  And it is disappointing to see reviewers completely side-step the question.

But why should we care?  Is it really fair to demand an intellectual explanation for an artistic process?  After all, some things just can’t be explained, can they?  The difference is that not only have Propeller been given Arts Council funding, they also participated in school projects to popularise Shakespeare, jointly funded by the DCSF and the Arts Council.   The mantra seems to be the same: that Propeller are doing something special with Shakespeare, and something which is engaging young people.  As the whatsonstage review put it ‘Teenage boys will love it’.  Never mind the message it sends to girls, who whilst they might enjoy the productions, will be learning that Shakespeare can only be done properly by men.  Propeller may be putting on good productions, but they are not unique, and not particularly original.  And certainly not unique or original enough to justify the exclusivity of the casting.  We don’t think any company is.

And why would the Arts Council, currently attempting to position itself to encourage more diversity and equality, choose to fund a theatre company that is exclusively male?   After all even Shakespeare in perhaps his most famous speech about theatre, was able to see beyond his ‘boy players’:

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players……

Update 12.2.12:  The Stage has reported that Equity vice president Jean Rogers has called on the theatre sector to take steps to address the lack of opportunities for older female performers.  She sent out 43 letters to artistic directors of venues in the subsidised sector last February and so far has received no more than a dozen back.  We wonder if Ed Hall was one of them, and if so, what he might have said?  After all he is married to ‘older actress’ Issy Van Randwyck.

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3 Responses to Get your tickets out for the lads: why do the Arts Council fund Ed Hall’s Propeller?

  1. Pingback: We un-happy few: Are there really ‘so few leading men?’ | rageoffstage

  2. Pingback: A foot in both camp: Victor/Victoria at the Southwark Playhouse | rageoffstage

  3. Pingback: Many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still*: Things we want to say about disability and theatre | rageoffstage

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