Friday 17 February 2012

Propeller-spinning: An Interview with Chris Myles

Edward Hall’s all-male company Propeller has been responsible for some of the most distinctive and memorable Shakespeare productions of the last fifteen years. Equal parts reverent and irreverent, endlessly inventive but rooted in tradition, Propeller’s wide-ranging approach combines imaginative physical elements with scrupulous attention to the text and has resulted in productions of often startling inventiveness, emotion and wit, productions that make you view plays afresh.

Key to the company’s success has been its versatile ensemble of actors. The set-up works like this: once an actor has created a part in a production he automatically receives an offer of a role in the next play. Inevitably, some have chosen to move on, but among those who’ve stayed is Chris Myles who has appeared in every single one of the company’s major productions since 1997.

Among a multitude of diverse roles he’s been a fishnet-stocking-clad Maria in Twelfth Night, a befuddled, bowler-hatted Vincentio in The Taming of the Shrew and a whip-cracking, lavender-booted Abbess arriving to a chorus of “Heaven Is A Place On Earth” in The Comedy of Errors. He’s also met a memorably gory end as Buckingham in Richard III and flung a scarf in the face of yours truly as a rabble-rousing Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice. He’s currently to be seen doubling as a Montgomery-inspired Exeter and a wry Alice in Henry V, and as Camillo in The Winter’s Tale. As the company prepared for their week’s run at the Lowry Theatre in Salford I spoke to Chris for British Theatre Guide about his time with Propeller, and what keeps him on board.

It is, he says, the company’s collaborative ethos and its spirit of “inclusiveness” that he finds especially appealing. “Ed’s rehearsal process is different to that of a lot of other directors. In traditional rehearsals, you meet at the read-through and then work on your individual scenes. With Propeller you’re in every day and you feel completely included in the whole process. If you don’t have lines in a scene you’ll be given something to do, whether it’s banging on a pot or playing the flute. And when it comes to ideas we can all pitch in and contribute.

“It’s a bit like Henry, in a way. Ed’s the leader; we’re the troops. But he values our input. It really does create this instant camaraderie. In addition, we’re all on the same money, so there’s none of that ‘Oh, your agent got you a better deal than mine did, did they?’”
That inclusiveness also extends to performance and the company’s interaction with the audience. “We always seek out moments where we can move through the auditorium, or appeal to the audience directly, finding ways to include and involve them.”

Discussing the wide mix of influences and references that makes Propeller’s work so exciting, Myles affirms that it’s always “about telling the story. For example, The Pogues song [‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’] in Henry. That line: ‘But when we got back, labeled parts one to three…’ The Chorus wants to tell the story of a hero, and this song speaks about the experience of war. Again, anything is permissible - so long as it serves the story that we’re telling.”
Henry V was the first play that the company staged in 1997, and they first performed The Winter’s Tale in 2005. Have there been any surprises in returning to the plays for the current tour? “Well, Henry V was so long ago now that it really did feel like working on a new play this time,” Myles says. “The 1997 production was promenade and about a third of it was performed outside the Watermill Theatre.
The Winter’s Tale was also at the Watermill - on that tiny postage-stamp stage - and my main memory of it is a feeling of claustrophobia. The sheer scale of the production makes it different this time around. And of course I was playing the Shepherd then so had his perspective on events, whereas this time, as Camillo, it’s a very different journey.”  

Are there any moments that he especially looks forward to in the current productions? “I really love marching into the French court as Exeter in Henry V [below]. And appearing in disguise in the festival scene in The Winter’s Tale is a definite highlight.” (Ah, that disguise. To give away more would be unfair to those yet to see the production. But let’s just say that it’s a classic “Myles moment.”)

Does he see the two plays as complements in any way? “It’s always about creating two separate experiences for the audience and of course these plays are very different. But it’s surprising, the various echoes that occur. Polixenes and Camillo’s lines about ‘honour’ in The Winter’s Tale make me think of Henry’s speech to the soldiers before Agincourt, for example. One thing about performing two Shakespeares is that it resolves the authorship question for you to some extent. No way do you think that these plays weren’t written by the same person.”

With regard to Propeller’s intense touring schedules, Myles is enthusiastic. “It keeps plays alive, performing them in different spaces. Plus, it’s great fun, going around the world with your mates. We’ve now instituted ‘Leisure Friday’ when we’ll get together for a game of football, or to go to a gallery, or see a film. Of course, you’ve got to enjoy travelling. I love seeing cities, including English cities: Salford, Newcastle… My family has been able to come along on some of the international dates. My wife came with me to Girona, Verona, Madrid. My kids had a wonderful time in Boston.”

Asked about some of the incidents outlined by his long-time cohort Tony Bell on the latter’s fabulous blog - Chris, Bell writes, has “rescued me from Mexican gangsters, Filipino lady boys, the Watermill river and incurable ‘foot in mouth’ disease” - Myles laughs. “Tony does tend to wander off sometimes with his head in the clouds and has to be brought back from the brink. In Mexico we did get mistaken for anti-government guerrillas. It was the balaclavas we were wearing for that production … The TV crews turned up.” Life on a Propeller tour can be as dramatic off-stage as on-stage, evidently.
Myles also speaks of the differences in responses to the productions country-to-country, including American audience’s occasional discomfort with some of the more low-brow, ribald elements in the plays. He singles out the audiences at the Shakespeare Festival in Neuss as especially responsive and clued-up: “They ‘get’ the most obscure jokes.”

The issue of “all-male companies” has been raised again recently, with Jo Caird, in a blog for, highlighting the “chronic underrepresentation of women on the British stage” and suggesting that she would boycott the work of companies such as Propeller. What’s Myles’s take? “We’re doing the plays as they were done originally. And there are things in them that resonate in a different way when it’s a male actor saying those lines as a female character. There’s a reason that so many of Shakespeare’s heroines cross-dress and it’s because boys were originally playing these roles... I should also point out that women are very present in Propeller, from our stage management team to our executive producer, Caro MacKay.
“When this issue comes up at talkbacks we often say, ‘Well, why not do an all-female production, like the Kathryn Hunter and Janet McTeer Taming of the Shrew?’ Many people say that Kathryn Hunter’s Lear was the best they’ve ever seen, and the same with Fiona Shaw’s Richard II…
“That being said, I do have female friends in the business who will comment ‘So you’re playing another role I’d love to play.’ Sometimes all you can say in response is ‘Sorry…’”

Does he approach playing a female character differently in any way? “No. I think that the biggest mistake you can make is to think that you have to approach it differently. Acting always requires a ‘leap’ of some sort: of age, of ability. Gender is no different.”

Myles, who is also a local councillor in Hackney, was drawn to acting from a fairly young age, and recalls being inspired by his father who performed with an amateur theatre group. “I remember going to see him in a farce. He got a lot of laughs, and I was impressed by that. Then I did plays at school. And at University I found that I wasn’t going to lectures but I was going to rehearsals. So it became clear that that was where the interest lay.”

Most Propeller followers have a wish-list for future productions. Does Myles have a longing to do certain plays or to take on certain roles? “Hamlet and Iago. Of course most actors would say those two, but it doesn’t hurt to mention them in print, just in case your director happens to be reading.

 “I also think that it would be fascinating to see Propeller do a non-Shakespeare play. I think that’s something that will happen, long-term. There’s no reason why our ways of working on Shakespeare wouldn’t work for a range of other plays.”
With such an expansive vision for the future, and actors as talented and versatile as Myles on board, Propeller, it seems certain, will keep spinning creatively for many years to come.
Propeller tour Henry V and The Winter’s Tale until July this year. See the Propeller website for full dates and details, and catch them wherever you can.

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