Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Phillip Breen
Ever since Clifford Williams’ ground-breaking production nearly 50 years ago the Royal Shakespeare Company has seemed to feel the need for every version of The Comedy of Errors to top its predecessors in imagination, lunacy and absurdity. Phillip Breen’s new production, now on tour, has those in plenty and amused the Bradford Alhambra audience mightily, but to some extent it loses touch with the actual play which is, after all, funny enough in all conscience.
It’s Shakespeare, not for the only time, having fun with twins. This time there are two pairs of twins and, to complicate matters further, both of the twins in a pair have the same name. At the start of the play Egeon, a merchant from Syracuse, is arrested in Ephesus and sentenced to death if he cannot produce a ransom. To simplify the story he tells, after a shipwreck he lost one of his twin sons and one of the twins who acted as their servants. Unknown to him, all four survived and one Antipholus and one Dromio are living in Ephesus and the other two have come looking for them.
And then attention switches to the pairs of twins. Antipholus of Syracuse is persuaded to come to dinner with a woman who treats him as her husband while the real husband, Antipholus of Ephesus, is locked out. Money and valuables change hands, then Antipholus denies the transaction – wrong Antipholus! –, the good folk of Ephesus constantly confuse their fellow-citizen with his newly-arrived brother and, of course, the Dromios get beatings that are intended for their twin.
This production was originally staged in the newly created Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre in Stratford and it bears the mark of an outdoor summer romp. Only Guy Lewis as Antipholus of Syracuse, wandering lost through the confusion of the opening scenes like Cary Grant in a Hitchcock movie, observes the old dictum about taking farce seriously. Otherwise madness descends on all from an early stage, with shouting and screaming, mugging and tugging, synchronised attitudes of horror and amazement. Every slapped face, every boot up the backside, is accompanied by a raucous sound effect in this comic-strip world.
It’s all a bit much – and the old farce gets, to some extent, buried – but the physical comedy is imaginatively plotted and expertly delivered by a large, formidably energetic cast. The Dromios of Jonathan Broadbent and Greg Haiste are drolly flexible clowns and, when they stop running long enough for us to notice, prove winning personalities. Rowan Polonski channels his inner John Cleese as Antipholus of Ephesus, Naomi Sheldon operates on a high level of fury throughout as his wife Adrianna and Avita Jay’s Luciana, her sister, balances her tirades with a nice mix of mayhem and moderation.
For all the frenzied action involved, the extra visual gags slow down the original farce, but often they are very funny and nearly always delivered with panache and perfect timing. So do they enhance or mar Shakespeare’s craziest play (arguably)? Difficult to say: as in the old axiom, you pays your money and takes your choice…
Runs until 6th November 2021