Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Peter Stickney
Musical Director: Alex Beetschen
Choreography: Darren Royston
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
There’s something special and magical about watching a theatrical production in the open air, and there are few better places to do it than Harlow Carr Gardens near Harrogate. The setting is perfect: a level area for the stage surrounded by an assortment of tall, colourful, seemingly randomly planted flowers, with a backing of majestic trees; then a sloping area bordered by immaculate hedges that are ideal for garden chairs, deckchairs and picnic rugs, where the audience is guaranteed a perfect view of the action.
Action there certainly is, by the cartload, in this accomplished production by the all-male theatre company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The energetic cast of seven, six of whom play multiple roles, makes a wonderful job of re-enacting Shakespeare’s hilarious The Comedy of Errors. It’s a simple set, as can be expected in an outdoor theatre, consisting of a raised box stage with a doorway at the back, putting us in mind of a farce, which essentially this play is. There’s much laughter (not least by the cast, who seem to be enjoying themselves immensely) raised by frantic comings and goings through that door. The story is basically a simple one but embroidered and embellished in true Shakespearian style. Two sets of twins, one from a quite affluent merchant family and the other of lower social standing, are separated in a shipwreck, and years later the merchant father is searching for his sons. By some chance, these sets of identical twins find themselves in the same town on the same day, years later, and their father happens along. Lots of complications ensue, involving a wife, a courtesan, gold jewellery, bags of money, missed dinners, reunions and above all mistaken identity, but it all makes for plenty of laughs.
Every actor on stage has a fantastic command of the traditional Shakespearian language, and after the first few minutes, the audience totally forgets that everything is in Old English, it appears to issue from the mouths of these guys so naturally. That they can deliver these complicated lines and act so flawlessly, and sometimes manically, is truly amazing. The merchant’s twin sons, both named Antipholus, are played brilliantly, with wonderful facial expressions and sense of entitlement, by James Sidwell and Joseph Phelps. The other twins, the Dromios, played by Robert Elkin and Barney Healy-Smith, are essentially the clowns of the play, and some of their scenes closely resemble slapstick – their talents and timing are incredible, and the audience members almost fall off their chairs laughing at some of the antics. George Howard and Alasdair James McLaughlin play their parts as ‘ladies’ in just the right vein, stopping short of putting on a drag performance, but extracting some laughs from the roles by their mannerisms and extreme expressions.
The director Peter Stickney set this production of The Comedy of Errors in Ephesus in the Ottoman Empire in what was then Greece, but is now Turkey, in a departure from the usual world of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan England. At that time in the 16th Century Ephesus was viewed as a kind of magical, mystical place full of witchcraft and sorcery, and Shakespeare took up on this theme. As Dromio comments “There’s none but witches do inhabit here” and he’s all in favour of getting out of the place. The director and his staff carried out extensive research into the culture of the area at the time, and the set, the costumes and the included songs are a testament to their hard work. All the costumes are based on original designs from old drawings and paintings and are handmade for the actors. The dresses, which sit perfectly well on male figures, are especially beautiful, with a velvet look and spun thread stitching. All costumes are worn with simple black breeches, white stockings and black pumps which provide a cohesion among the cast in their renditions of traditional songs. These songs were incidentally translated from local Cypriot dialects into Greek then into English, which seems a laborious feat, but the resulting musical numbers are very enjoyable.
All in all, it’s a great night out. Even the resident midges can’t spoil the enjoyment of the contents of a real picnic basket washed down by that glass of red, all savoured alongside the traditional entertainment that is true English heritage. That man from Stratford knew how to tell a good tale, and generations later we’re still lapping them up – in the open air, with an all-male cast in period costume, just as things should be, really.
Touring Nationwide | Image: Contributed