Bard boy makes girl

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2007, 12:00am

THE FIRST PLAY Ed Hall saw was a production of Macbeth at the Old Vic theatre in London when he was five years old. Most children of that age might have been spooked by the witches and murders, and bored - or at least challenged - by the Shakespearian language. But not Hall. He was hooked.

'If I could paint, I would paint the 'vision of the future' scene that I saw that day,' the now 40-year-old theatre director says of the 1972 production starring Anthony Hopkins and Diana Rigg. He's referring to the scene in which Macbeth, made ambitious by the predictions of three witches, has a premonition of what would happen if he were king. A romantic might suggest Hall remembers that scene because at that moment he saw his own future - although he says it was simply a vivid piece of theatre. 'I tend to think in pictures,' he says. 'I have a photographic memory.'

He has a four-year-old daughter. Would he take her to see Macbeth, despite the witches and the murders? 'If she knew someone in it and wanted to go, then I'd take her,' he says. 'But I'd brief her beforehand. She'd know what the play's about.'

Hall's father is director Peter Hall, which perhaps accounts for the precocious timing of his first Shakespeare play ('I think we knew someone in the cast,' he says) and of his confidence in his daughter's ability to understand complicated dramatic ideas. But he's adamant that he has never seen the theatre as a family business.

'I didn't go into it straight away at all,' he says. When he was younger he ran a recording studio, renting equipment. Then he went to university, and only went to drama school later on. It took him five years as an actor 'to realise I wasn't very good'. But when he did realise it, he says, he was lucky, 'because in directing I found something I enjoyed much more'.

One of the aspects Hall has found most enjoyable is directing all-male casts in Shakespeare plays. 'It started almost accidentally,' he says of the Propeller Theatre Company that he helped found a decade ago, and which is making its Hong Kong debut at the Arts Festival this week.

In 1997, Britain was facing a general election and Hall decided to stage Henry V, a four-centuries-old play about a leadership crisis. He cast a chorus of 11 men, who would take different roles as they looked back on the story of the king. Men would play women, just as they'd done in Shakespeare's time, and they would also stay on the stage the whole time. It toured globally, including the Philippines, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

'We all enjoyed ourselves so much we decided to do it again and the idea of Propeller as an all-male Shakespeare company was born,' Hall says. The company operates a pool of about 25 actors - and any who originate a role in a show are always offered a job in the next. 'If the company is successful the actors enjoy that success, but we're light on our feet - we don't have huge administrative costs.'

Although it appears on the outside to be a male-run company, it's not, Hall says. 'The stage manager, the assistant stage manager, the props, costumes ... they're all women.'

And until recently the artistic director was a woman: Jill Fraser, who died last year. She was one of the forces behind Propeller, during her 25 years as artistic director of the Windmill Theatre, Propeller's home. 'This project was the culmination of all Jill's work and she was so furious to think she wouldn't see it,' says Hall. 'Three days before she died, she met Kevin Spacey - artistic director of the Old Vic theatre - talking about a co-production. Now her husband, James Sargant, is running it instead.'

The two Propeller plays at the Arts Festival - The Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night - seem appropriate for a company that relishes gender issues and mistaken identities.

The first is about a fiery woman, Kate, and her pretty sister Bianca who both are victims of trickery and disguise. The second involves twins being separated and the girl disguising herself as her brother. When you have a man pretending to be a woman who's disguised as a man, the layers can be even more delicious than usual, Hall says. The trick is fun for both actors and audiences, he says, but it also seems to reveal an elusive truth about the nature of theatre as pretence.

'What's the difference in me pretending to be Hamlet and me pretending to be Juliet? Both times I'm pretending,' he says. 'But in the latter scenario you're acutely aware that I'm not a woman and that this is therefore make-believe, and in the former case, it's not quite so obvious.'

Late last year at London's Barbican, Hall directed a production of Dick Whittington & His Cat written by Mark Ravenhill. 'I like pantomime,' Hall says, 'partly because a good one will fund a company for half a year.' And partly because a director with a great memory for pictures can have a lot of fun with the visuals, as he does with the two Shakespeare plays.

'In Hong Kong, people will see a very colourful, funny show, with lots of live music and highly physical, with 1970s-style platform shoes, pink and white hot water bottles, Stetsons and an Apple laptop.'

It's as far from bog-standard Shakespeare as can be. 'It has to be,' Hall says. 'I have a low boredom threshold.'

Taming of the Shrew and Twelfth Night, Propeller Theatre, Mar 7-10, Lyric Theatre, Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, HK$180-HK$450. Inquiries: 2824 2430