The Comedy of Errors
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre
12th February 2012
Directed by Dominic Cooke
I know The Comedy of Errors quite well … decades ago, we had Plautus’s The Menaechmus Twins and The Comedy of Errorsas set texts for which we had to do comparative detailed production notes.Plautus was popular in the late 16th century, so in radically adapting the plot, Shakespeare was doing what West Side Story did to Romeo & Juliet. Shakespeare greatly embellished the story by adding a second set of twins, as servants and building the wife’s part from another Plautus play. He kept Syracuse from Plautus’s original as the home town of Egeon and Antipholus, but switched Plautus’s Epidamnus as the play’s location to Epheseus. The political geography of Shakespeare is often wobbly, but it’s significant. Plautus had also placed the play back by choosing Greek locations (Epidamnus is the modern Durres in Albania, Syracuse is in Sicily, and was founded by Greeks). Shakespeare, well-drilled in classics, also chose two Greek locations. Perhaps Epheseus came to mind because of St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, but it had been in Turkey for two hundred years by the 1590s, and was not a current city, having been abandoned a century earlier. Perhaps he was consciously thinking of the setting as in the classical period.
The Comedy of Errors is often regarded as a slightly inferior Shakespeare comedy, being early and the shortest. I’ve seen several productions and they were always excellent. My favourite was the Australian one directed by John Bell which was in Bath’s Shakespeare Festival in 2006. The RSC did another carnival one a year later at the same venue. An exotic setting with fezzes and Turkish trousers latched onto the Epheseus setting, though as mentioned above, the city was a covered-over ruin early on in the Turkish era.
While A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a superior play, what it has in common with Comedy of Errors is that it’s hard to make either fail as entertainment.
Adriana (Claudie Blakeley) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Lenny Henry)
This production, featuring Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse, is high concept and high production value. I’ve enjoyed Lenny Henry’s work since TisWas on Saturday mornings, and he reinforces the view that it’s easier to make a good comedian into a good actor than vice-versa.
One of the features of The Comedy of Errors is that it employs the three classical unities: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. After The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare never returned to the classical model. It’s easy enough to do the play sticking to the rules … a couple of houses around the town square, the abbey to one side, and you can run it easily with one fixed set. That’s been the norm, a brightly lit white town space in the Australian one. But not here. This is The Comedy of Errors by night, with an array of ever-changing sets and locations within the twilight urban jungle of Epheseus. The stage has a turning circle. They use the ability to shift sets brilliantly. It didn’t seem as if the same street location appeared twice, except for The Phoenix, Adriana’s house. This is a concrete and glass three story block wedged tightly between two old crumbling buildings … that looked like modern Greece too. The ever changing shops assist the plot. In modern dress production, the sword fights are always an issue … here Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio emerge from a knife shop with newly-acquired weapons. In the “Porcupine” brothel scenes, the three storey high set has something going on in every single window (top stage right, there’s a trussed up man being whipped) … and that’s in two separate buildings.
The snooker hall scene: Luciana and Adriana watch Antipholus berating Dromio
The concept, set out in the programme, is the Big City. In the Australian and RSC productions above, it was a small town square and the carnival … the tricksters, jugglers and fire eaters … which set the ‘witchcraft’ that Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse feared. Here it’s the big city. Some reviews talked about them being stranded on the ‘coast of Essex’ but that’s reacting only to the female roles as Essex girls. Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Syracuse (Lucian Msamati) both have Afro-Caribbean accents (Lenny Henry leans to Jamaican, Lucian Msamati to African). The population of Ephesus have Estuary / Essex accents. These two strangers are country boys adrift in the corrupt city. Accents are important … the cook has a Spanish accent.
This is the fourth Shakespearean Duke in modern dress as gangster we’ve seen within six months, but the idea fits the dispensation of tough summary justice so well that it’s become fixed. 2011 / 2012 also looks as if both the RSC and the NT are buying their bondage gear in bulk at Ann Summers because the SM theme appears again and again the last two years. Here, wonderfully, with a transvestite, a gay biker and various specialist females in the scenes around the “Porcupine”, extended from a courtesan’s house into a brothel in a sleazy part of town.
The very large ensemble makes for richly detailed background acting … in the shipwreck, the snooker hall, around and within the brothel, and as orderlies from the mental hospital. They can afford an ensemble and it’s great.
One of the criticisms of the play is that the plot sits entirely on a LONG speech by Egeon (father of the twins) at the start. Blink or lose attention and you’ve lost the plot. You need to know that there were twins, plus twin bondsmen, which we call servants but were closer to Roman house slaves. You need to know that the ship was wrecked and that Egeon saved one twin plus one servant and that the others disappeared along with his wife. Crucially, you need to know that he re-named the saved twins Antipholus and Dromio in honour of the lost ones. Shakespeare learned not to rely on such a lengthy explanation later. It was beloved of those 1930s thrillers which start with the charlady answering the phone and explaining who each of the family is and what they’re doing (as lampooned by Tom Stoppard in The Real Inspector Hound).
I’ve seen the explanation of the shipwreck done with puppets and models in the background during the speeech, but here we have a whole surrogate cast as the young Egeon and family, performing the shipwreck behind his lines, removing every issue. Egeon is played by Joseph Mydell, the third link to our ELT videos already this year. Joseph Mydell was the American USAF officer, Major Hammond, in our Mystery Tour video, and the visiting American forced to play cricket in Grapevine Three. We hadn’t seen him in twenty years and hadn’t known he was in this … a great and moving performance. One thing we really noticed was that the end with both Antipholuses and Egeon and the Abbess in a group hug was genuinely moving … not what you’d expect from Shakespeare’s closest play to farce.
L to R: The Courtesan (Grace Thurgood), Adriana (Claudie Blakeley), Luciana (Michelle Terry)
The women are the Essex elememt. Adriana (Claudie Blakeley) and Luciana (Michelle Terry) are a double act, tottering on the highest heels. Luciana gets the best lines and gets every ounce out of them too. We were amazed at how similar Lenny Henry and Chris Jarman (Antipholus of Epheseus) looked at the end … they’re not much alike outside the play, but the shaved heads, beards, general build and costumes convinced that they were twins. The Dromio twins had the advantage of curly hair and glasses, but again it was hard to tell which was which except by the accents. (Early photos don’t show the bushy wigs … if they were added after the start, it was a good idea).
There are many, many lovely moments … the beauty parlour, the Phoenix apartment block where Adriana lives, the ambulance, the chase. The chase is pure pantomime … it’s the brokers’ men chase. Even the car that appears is a brokers’ men comedy device. That’s a positive to me. All the minor parts are great. Amit Shah is the tall lanky goldsmith, contrasted with Rene Zagger as the tiny sharply-dressed second merchant in silvery suit, continually passing out his business cards. His instant exit with iPhone when he gets the money is one of the many two-second pieces of brilliance in the production. Earlier I said ‘blink and you’ve missed it’ and I’d love to see this again because I’m sure I missed a dozen similar touches, because so much is going on.
All in all, a five star Shakespeare production. It’s a contrast with the Australian bright-lit carnival 100 minute version (this is 120 minutes), and not ‘better’ but very different.
Perfect sight lines, decent rake, wide spaces between seats, no ‘restricted view’ seats, huge acting area, ample toilet facilities, pleasant public areas, even easy to get an ice-cream … the Olivier at the National Theatre is unquestionably the best theatre in the country. If only the RSC had studied it more closely in its renovations. If you’ve sat in the front of the upper circle at The Swan, squashed knee cut into by the 45 degree angle on the wooden balustrade, which is purely cosmetic, or sat behind an iron pillar in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, you’ll know the difference. In the 70s the brutalist concrete exterior was more loathed than loved, but the internal spaces created are superb.
What it means for this production is they could never tour the huge and complex sets. There are maybe three theatres in the country that could take it … the ones that took the ten-hour Tantalus a few years ago, like Milton Keynes. That means it’s a privilege to see it.
The live four piece covers transitions. What a shame that yet another programme fails to list the music they played.
OTHER PRODUCTIONS REVIEWED HERE: