Single-sex Propeller isn’t all about spin

Street baddie: Nicholas Asbury (Polixenes) in rehearsals for Propeller's The Winter's Tale. PICTURE: Dominic Clemence
Street baddie: Nicholas Asbury (Polixenes) in rehearsals for Propeller's The Winter's Tale. PICTURE: Dominic Clemence
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AT least Nicholas Asbury can finally walk the streets of Sheffield without being lambasted for putting down one of soapland’s best-loved pets.

“I became public enemy number one for a while,” he laughs, “for killing off Schmichael the dog.”

The unpopular action came when Nicholas played a vet in Coronation Street and the hound became too poorly to walk the famous cobbles.

Thankfully the actor put it behind him, getting cast in the first episode of Midsomer Murders under Neil Dudgeon’s tenure. Nicholas was less lucky on another police drama.

“I’ve died twice in The Bill, artistically and physically, but never mind.”

Nicholas has faired better with Propeller down the years and returns to the Lyceum with a rarely-performed play the company first did in 2006. Nicholas wasn’t involved in that but has been part of Propeller since it began with Henry V.

“It’s a revival but at the same time we’re breathing a whole new life into it,” says Nicholas, who plays Polixines in Winter’s Tale.

“There’s lots of new things and it’s a new cast. We’ve got a full rock band on stage – a couple of us are musicians as well as actors. Two of us were in a band 10 years ago so decided it might be a good opportunity. We open the second half with a rock gig, although it’s quite a tragic play to start with.”

Apart from his brushes with telly, including a spell as Tara’s dad in The Inbetweeners, Nicholas has toured more conventionally with the Royal Shakespeare Company and written books about the Bard.

Propeller deliver Shakespeare in a very different way, however, using a trademark physical aesthetic and ethic that inspires much loyalty among actors.

“We never get any time off. We’re all in all productions and understudy each other so we have the journey of many different parts. It’s a busy time being in Propeller, but the spirit of ensemble is alive and well and living in the sense people come back after years.

“Yes you go off and do other things but the bottom line is next year’s job with Propeller is ours to turn down, which is incredibly unusual for an actor.

“Director Ed Hall will cast it from the present cast and if somebody can’t do it, which invariably happens because the acting world is one of shifting sands, his next port of call will be previous Propellerheads. Only when that’s exhausted do new people come in. Some people will say that’s a bit of a closed shop but what it brings is a fantastic sense of ensemble.”

By the time Shakespeare was writing The Winter’s Tale it was 10 years after he’d finished writing his history plays. He was older and wiser and much more poetic.

“Propeller, maybe more than some companies, are able to stress the flexibility of such stories and prose through their unorthox presentation – great for younger audiences as well as those seeking a different take.

“The challenge for us is to put across some of the most dense but intelligent and beautiful language ever written.

“It’s our job to try and manifest that so the audience can really understand it, grasp it and go with us on a remarkable and heart-rending but life-affirming story.

“Shakespeare travels through the generations and one of the reasons was because he was constantly trying to keep himself out of prison; every other playwright in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was imprisoned at some stage for displeasing the authorities. His language has bounced down through the centuries because people always see both sides of the argument.

“When you combine that with this most extraordinary human sense of what is right at a particular time, and the beauty of that language, you’ve got a pretty winning combination.

“To play with it as an actor is like being a jazz musician. Yes there is the verse and we are very rigorously put through our paces by Ed who insists on a certain way of speaking Shakespeare. But once you’ve got that structure you can riff around with it all you like. That’s when it becomes interesting for an actor and the audience.

“Something different is happening every night. It’s electric and beguiling at the same time. I’m never bored doing a long run of Propeller shows.”

Another thing that endures is our love of a good story. This tragic fairytale centres on the mysterious and extraordinary story of Leontes, a man consumed by an inexplicable jealousy that destroys his family, his kingdom and himself. Wracked with guilt, he sets off a chain reaction of events that leads to a miraculous climax and the chance of redemption.

“I’m convinced the more the world becomes virtual so people crave actual theatre. The more someone is standing on stage crying and sweating about their father or their wife in front of you, smelling, breathing, the more remarkable that becomes in our society.

“It’s an amazing way of engaging and telling a story and it appeals to our deep human sense of community.”

So, perhaps, not surprising Propeller courts a loyal audience.

“Word of mouth is a fantastic thing and we’ve built up a following,” says Nicholas.

“They’re after something fresh and exciting. I’m certainly not saying Propeller are better than anybody else, we’re just different and bring a house style to the show which is hopefully full of imagination, laughter and joy. If I’d been to see a Propeller show when I was a kid... well, I ended up being an actor anyway.

“When you put 15 guys in a room together and a very imaginative director they can come up with loads of stupid things to do. Whether they serve the story or not... you’ve got to be ruthless. If you have a shared vision and as long as you can take people on that vision you’re doing something right.”