Ed Hall (he's happy to be called Ed or Edward, 'most people call me Ed'), props himself in one of those infamously uncomfortable folding director's chairs at a minuscule kitchen table, mobile on 'silent', puffing occasionally on his panatela, and exuding the intellectual energy of a man with a mission.
This energy is certainly infectious. Moments before he had whisked me on a guided tour of the Watermill Theatre site, trying doors here, peering through windows there, exploring this early nineteenth century clutter of mill and farm buildings that now enchantingly hosts a theatre, restaurant and rehearsal complex, seamlessly juxtaposed into the original timber framework, perfectly complementing this idyll of rural England .
'Why at the Watermill?' I hear you say. As a rabid Londoner, what could the Watermill offer me that I couldn't find in the central or suburban confines of the metropolis? As I cruised along the M4, jostling with the afternoon commuter haul, Radio 4 chattering reassuringly in the background, I realised how often we miss out on real theatrical adventures. Off the motorway at Junction 13, heading towards the expanded market town of Newbury, a sign to the Watermill Theatre leads me along winding English country lanes, through an idyllic one-pub village, and effortlessly into the courtyard car park of the theatre. A rivulet, swollen by the recent rains, bustles noisily in the early evening winter's darkness. Large farmyard ducks huddle on the bankside, and a dog barks impotently in the distance. I breathe in fresh air, and listen to the stillness.
What a magical place to see Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which starts previewing from Wednesday 5 February until Saturday 22 March 2003. Hall is obviously passionate about the play: 'It's a beautiful, delicate, and at times brutal illumination of love, about love.' Performed by twelve 'quite young' male actors, Hall sees it as only 'logical to explore one of Shakespeare's feminine plays', what he describes as this 'sensual erotic tragicomedy'.
I am in the presence of a professional. I wasn't there to interview Hall, merely soak up the enthusiasm, and record a well rehearsed, impeccably presented, and fiercely honest exposition of the excitement of a man who is obviously doing exactly what he was put on this earth to do -- direct.
The rehearsal process for the actors has been refined through several collaborative all-male productions, notably Hall's Othello, Henry V, Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and, most recently, his adaptation of Henry VI, punningly called Rose Rage, which transferred to the Haymarket Theatre, London in 2002. 'We've been rehearsing about three weeks, and we open in a week and a half, including the technicals, so it's quite a tight schedule.'
It isn't just the schedule that's tight. The rehearsal room, cluttered with props and costumes, kettle and coffee, a square shaped area dissected and marked cryptically with multi-coloured tape, appears no bigger than a roomy London bedsit. This square, the exact dimensions of the theatre performing space itself, is a two dimensional floorplan that requires some interpretation. 'Those two green squares', one edge toothily pointing offstage, 'they're the columns'. Entrances and exits are through the auditorium, and with a mischievous grin, Hall describes the theatre space itself: 'You know the Orange Tree in Richmond ? Well it's like that -- only prettier!'
The walls of the rehearsal room are papered, literally papered, with cascading sheets of flipchart, sellotaped together, and blue-tacked to every available surface. Large red and black graffiti messages are scrawled all around the space. Character studies, plot nuances, locations, ideas, a collective memorial of a rehearsal of exploration, mutual support and development. No wasted energy here. No sign of a tyrannical director, slavishly intellectualizing his dream, and drip-feeding the actors with information. These are professionals working together as a close-knit team.
'The whole process has to be one of discovery, we can't atrophy' claims Hall, as he discusses the pros and cons of working so closely with a group of actors, who for the most part have remained together for the Ed Hall productions. The pros -- 'self awareness, working together, we know each other, we can cut to the chase, we have the freedom to explore with each other, and, most importantly, to feel comfortable enough to make mistakes'. And as for the cons? 'All of the above' says Hall, 'we must reinvent our relationships -- break the chains', to make sure the productions remain fresh and vibrant.
The style of performance is also vital to Hall. 'I'm determined not to chain the play to the floor with elaborate modern conceits' such as extravagant stage, sound or lighting effects. 'If the play demands music, we play music, it's as simple as that'. And, most importantly, Hall admits it's 'hard to describe until we've done it -- there's an infinite possibility to the play's world, with no literal logic'.
This animosity towards what he describes as the 'technology' of modern performance displays Hall's fascination with countering those 'aesthetic traditional principles' which have surrounded Shakespearean performance for over two centuries. 'Shakespeare's plays are full of metaphors', and by 'defining the plays through the actors, the sounds, the music, and the relationship with the audience, we are able to express these metaphors'. In fact, Hall's mantra is simple: 'Good theatre is metaphor.'
The metaphorical strength of Shakespeare-as-poet is central to Hall's productions. 'With metaphor, the poet can describe infinite possibility to the world -- with no literal logic'. For Hall, this is fundamental to the beauty of A Midsummer Night's Dream: 'As Theseus describes it, the poet is the only person who can explain the enormous irrationality of human feelings.'
Hall strives to return to an 'originality' of performance by 'exploring the plays as they used to be written'. He is scathing of those 'traditionalists and academics' whom he believes have 'hijacked' Shakespeare's plays, taking their 'very clear and simple stories written in simple and clear language' for 'a primarily illiterate audience', and turning them into elite and inaccessible period pieces. 'No other dramatist writes to all sorts of people as Shakespeare'.
As for the gender issues of an all male cast? 'What gender issues? We're only doing it the way they were originally performed.' 'Shakespeare's plays transcend gender issues -- they are not dealing with sexuality as we view it. One human being's love for another, whether man for woman, woman for woman, man for man, it makes no odds. Shakespeare was writing about love -- a visionary way of viewing love.'
I ask Hall, what does he want to say to those who read about his production and are unsure: 'If you've never been to a Shakespeare play, come to ours, or if you've ever been put off Shakespeare because of school, come, give us a try.' With a farewell 'please come and join us', I leave Hall to relax before the next day's rehearsal. I'm convinced. I'll be there. Metaphorical wild horses won't keep me away!
Kevin Quarmby © 22 January 2003