Propeller in Istanbul

When we started rehearsing for this double-bill tour of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Comedy of Errors back in October of last year, Istanbul was the venue on the tour venue list that really excited me: the word gleamed like a jewel amongst all the provincial UK towns and cities that make up the bulk of the tour. Most of the cast and crew had never been there so it was an understatement to say it was an exciting prospect. And of course, it didn't disappoint.

Our first full day in the city was a day off, and despite our travel-weariness, we were keen to emulate Antipholus of Syracuse upon his arrival at Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors: 'I'll view the manners of the town, peruse the traders, gaze upon the buildings'. On that first day alone, I took in the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern and the Grand Bazaar. We drank Turkish coffee and ate an awful lot of köfte. It was good to get the tourist experience out of the way before we started work, knowing that the sights and sounds of visitor-buzzing Sultanahmet was only one aspect of this complex and fascinating city. I was also privileged to see another play in the festival on that first day: a new play called Persona Non Grata by Ceren Ercan and Gülce U─čurlu, a fascinating study of fear and social alienation in modern Istanbul. I thought the performance was excellent, and I was particularly impressed by the subtlety and naturalism of the acting.

After our day of leisure, we somewhat reluctantly got down to business, and the theatre in which we were playing, although resembling a conference centre rather than a theatre in a more traditional sense, was an easy and pleasant place to work. We had a team of guides who were friendly, welcoming and hospitable way above and beyond the call of duty. It felt as though we immediately had friends in Istanbul. It was fascinating to hear from our guides, over the course of the week, their feelings about the current political and social events in Turkey in general and Istanbul in particular. 

In addition to the warm welcome from our guides, it was extremely flattering and highly encouraging to learn that our run was more or less sold out.

When we present our shows in non-English speaking countries, we generally have surtitles above the stage, translating the dialogue as we go along. This can sometimes create a feeling of separation between the performers and the audience, knowing our words are being passed through the filter of another language. This feeling was less evident in Istanbul, perhaps because there was a high level of English speaking in the audience, or perhaps because a Turkish crowd is more concerned with the visual aspects of the production. But we found the audiences attentive, ready to laugh and enjoy themselves (which was lucky, since we were performing two comedies), and highly appreciative of our efforts.

It is a Propeller tradition that we troop out into the theatre foyer in the interval of our shows to play music – at home we collect money for charity, but abroad we tend to use the interval music to keep the energy of the performance going during the half-time break. We found the audiences in Istanbul particularly adored the interval music, clapping and even dancing along as we ripped through our raucous versions of ‘Daydream Believer’ and ‘It Must Be Love’.

It was difficult to gauge the social make-up of our audience, but it appeared to be more than purely the well-heeled, as sometimes seems to be the case when we play abroad. I’m a passionate believer that theatre can and must attract as wide an audience as possible, and while we were pre-set on stage waiting for the performance to begin, I was encouraged to see dozens of young people (presumably students) waiting in the aisles at the sides of the auditorium ready to fill any unclaimed seats when the performance began. If they couldn’t get a seat, they simply stood or sat on the stairs. I’d love to see a similar thing in theatres in London, where too often seats in ‘sold-out’ performances are left mysteriously unoccupied.

It can be exhilarating and often moving performing Shakespeare to foreign audiences, and it seems that his plays are capable of crossing any cultural divide. One of our guides told me that a particular pleasure in seeing Shakespeare performed in English is to hear the musicality of the words in their original tongue, as well as appreciating the comedic confusion of the plots. It seems to matter little that the plays are over four hundred years old and in another language, and it perhaps helps that Propeller perform the plays with a rigorous approach to the text (paying particular attention to the clarity of the language) and an exciting, modern physicality and aesthetic.

Our week in Istanbul was undoubtedly a highlight of our tour so far, and I can pay the city no greater compliment than to say that I couldn’t bear to leave: as we had a week’s holiday after our time in Istanbul, I delayed my flight home by four days so I could spend more time in the city. I loved getting pleasantly lost, wandering around areas like Fatih, Besiktas and Eyüp – places that the average tourist might not normally encounter. I felt I saw another side of Istanbul and really began to understand its reputation as a city of contradictions: East and West, tradition and modernity, religion and secularism, poverty and affluence. Even at the end of my extended stay, I felt I had only scratched the surface of this fascinating place, and I know I speak for all of us when I say I hope I will return very soon.

Matthew Pearson

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