The Comedy of Errors
‘The Shipwreck Season’
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Stratford Upon Avon
24th April 2012, 7.15 pm
Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi
Ankur Bahl – Messenger
Sarah Belcher – Nell
Amie Burns Walker – Courtesan
Kirsty Bushell – Adriana
Nicholas Day – Egeon
Sandy Grierson – Solinus
Stephen Hagan – Antipholus of Ephesis
Felix Hayes – Dromio of Ephesus
Amer Hlehel – Baltheasar
Solomon Israel – Officer
Jan Knightley – Merchant
Bruce Mackinnon – Dromio of Syracuse
Jonathan Mcguinness – Antipholus of Syracuse
Kevin Mcmonagle – Merchant
Cecilia Noble – Emilia
Jonathan Slinger – Doctr Pinch
Emily Taaffe – Luciana
Sargon Yelda – Angelo
The ghost of productions past is always an issue with well-loved, often seen plays, but in this case the RSC came merely weeks after the National Theatre (NT) production with Lenny Henry. OK, a few reviews were surprisingly snotty about that, certainly not mine, and it was a towering production, the set design of the year, a huge cast watched from the Olivier Theatre comfy seats and perfect sight lines. Adriana and Luciana were unmatchable as Essex girls, and Lenny Henry was Antipholus of Syracuse.
It gave us a problem in the first half at Stratford. The NT production hovered over our heads. We were in the back row of the circle, right at the side, on very high, thigh numbing seats, near an iron pillar, and had to walk round to the centre in the interval to even see the set design properly. In part two it was near impossible to see what was being lowered from the sky because you couldn’t see up past the roof of the Circle. Our interval assessment gave the points to the NT on every single member of the cast, the set design, the music and the costume. Before going on, let’s make it clear that the second half won us over to this production, and we enjoyed every second of the second half. I’d still rate the NT production better overall, vastly better on set design, but this was also hugely enjoyable, and a complete contrast. It was shorter, a mere 100 minutes running time, and this is Shakespeare’s shortest play in the first place. On the set, the NT revolving town cost a great deal more, and couldn’t be toured. They also had much higher ticket prices for a much longer run, which wasn’t in repertory with other plays.
This set had to work with the shipwreck season. There’s an ensemble cast for the three shipwreck plays: The Comedy of Errors, Twelfth Night and The Tempest. The thematic connection is tenuous, and no more than coincidental. Three out of thirty-seven or whatever, written at long intervals. All three are on successive performances on the same stage with the same actors. Stratford has to do that rapid changeover to make it worth travelling and staying. i.e. you can normally see two on successive days. We had tickets for the three, and this one came first.
The setting is a dockside in the modern day. The programme for the Tempest has notes by the designer, who says it’s a “breached Gaza Security Wall” but that’s information not given here.The Duke is a kind of gangland figure (yes, again. Every Shakespeare play!) with black-clad soldiers. It opens with Egeon being tortured by having his head shoved under water. Egeon has to explain the plot between being subjected to “enhanced interrogation” 2000s style. I felt deeply sorry for Nicholas Day who after enduring the water torture, had to spend a considerable part of the last act of the original play suspended from a hook high above the stage with his hands tied. Ten minutes in, and you’re convinced you’re in a tragedy or history. It’s brutal.
I say the “Duke” because I think of him as the Duke of Ephesus, but in the programme they list Sandy Grierson as Solinus. In the first scene, I disliked his performance. His Scottish accent was near incomprehensible. It was like trying to phone Sky TV to complain about a problem and not understanding a word, because the guy at the call centre refused to moderate an extreme Glaswegian accent. It’s why we dropped Sky and got Freeview. There’s no problem with Scottish accents as a rule. A Glaswegian and a West Texan can hold a conversation because both modify the extremes of accent. He didn’t and the accent swallows and truncates words. In the second half, he totally redeemed himself in my eyes because his performance was so powerful and he was so brilliantly threatening. I still couldn’t understand much of what he said, but heck, I know the play. It was like watching the Russian “Hamlet” without subtitles. If he could tone the accent down 25% (as people normally do instinctively outside their home regions) it would be marvellous. ASs we later found out, he tones it down for his portrayal of Ariel in The Tempest. We considered that the harsh, near incomprehensible tones of Solinus, added to the sense of being cast adrift in this alien town.
The dock setting was put to good effect. Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio arrive smuggled in a crate which is lowered from a crane. Later another crate opens to reveal a perplexing (to Antipholus) series of smuggled illegal immigrants … this explains why Solinus’s henchmen are so violent towards unauthorized foreign arrivals like Egeon. The last one out was an African lady with a stock of handbags to sell (and she does later). It’s a character you see in every Italian city ( Ephesus wasn’t in Italy, but it works). The first, another African, runs around chased by soldiers between bits. The programme has pictures of people who look displaced, trying to find a home. The director is, after all, Palestinian. You wonder about the relevance of the serious aspect in a near a farce as Shakespeare ever got, but it creates the scary state apparatus that summarily executes anyone from Syracuse who lands on its shores. Antipholus is genuinely scared between the mayhem, and we can see why. In most productions we just accept it, ‘Hey, get over the capricious death sentences; that’s just what Shakesperean dukes do.’
Adriana and Luciana are flown in
The dock leads to great business with oil drums and cranes (throughout). Adriana’s house is a framework which is flown in with her and Luciana seated for afternoon tea. Similarly, the crucial front door to her house is flown in too … and is on its own, and can revolve to reveal both sides during the scene; brown one side, pink the other. Adriana is a great role. Kirsty Bushell has the major female role and it was a powerful, modern, sexy and angry Adriana. Luciana looked very young. She gets the other big ones in the three play set… Viola and Miranda. She’s short, but was dressed in a short skirt which made her look very young. The contrast was extreme, there was a lovely scene in part two with Adriana bullying her (no plot spoilers), but it weakened her role compared to the NT where Luciana was an outstanding part. In fairness, the Essex girls concept at the NT was such a great idea that it’s hard to compete.
The costumes were excellent. Shiny suits and shirt gear for the Antipholuses, T-shirts (I Love Ephesus and I Love Syracuse, which helps early on, then they zip their jackets up to conceal them), track suit bottoms, nylon jackets for Dromios. But all the costumes were notable.
The second half starts with Solinus and troops dredging up a black swathed figure from-the dock. Dr Pinch is a cameo from Jonathan Slinger, who has to save his breath for Prospero and Malvolio in the other two. He arrives to give electro-shock treatment on Antipholus of Ephesus, then swathes him and Dromio in black plastic, like the figure that was dredged up, before they’re dragged away. Lots of sub texts here.
The Dromios and the door
The problem in part one was getting used to the high speed and frenetic action. Both Dromios (both five star performances) run, fall, get knocked about and just never let up. It’s such a large space with its long entrances that they can run flat out at all times. By part two we adjusted and could sit back and appreciate it and laugh. Antipholus of Syracuse really did seem totally confused by the action in Ephesus. The costumed band of musicians crossing the stage diagonally at various points added to the sense of chaos and strangeness in the city.
The Courtesan was a major turning point. Amie Burns Walker got that rarity, spontaneous applause mid-scene, as she hobbled off on one high heel shoe after five minutes which had the audience roaring with laughter. There are no small parts … as she proved. When she was on with Adriana, they had good business … Adriana reaching over and pulling the courtesan’s skirt hem lower, Adriana banging the courtesan’s head on an oil drum.
The Courtesan, Dromio, Antipholus of Syracuse
Angelo the goldsmith and The Merchant were a double act. Angelo gesturing to Antipholus to be careful what he said to the Mafiosi-looking Merchant. The Roman origins of the plot, from Plautus, are revealed by having characters called The Courtesan and The Merchant rather than being named.
As in nearly every Shakespeare production there are bits where the text is brought out better, and is funnier, than you have seen it before. One of several was the scene where Dromio of Syracuse compares Nell, the cook, to the countries of the world. It’s always funny, but this Dromio (Bruce MacKinnon) and this Antipholus (Jonathan McGuinness) did it best of all. Antipholus of Ephesus (Stephen Hagan) did the ultimate return after escaping Dr Pinch’s clutches, in a now filthy suit, one wrist strapped to a burnt out chair. Felix Hayes as Dromio of Ephesus also looked as if dragged through a bush backwards. The Dromios have never been bettered (though I’d say they were equalled at the NT). The Antipholuses were totally different to the NT, but again, just as good.
Massive applause at the end and a happy buzz from the audience going out. There was a lot of stuff in the programme about economic commodities in the16th century, ranging from people (the Dromios as bondsmen) to gold chains and diamond rings. I see that as about as tenuous as linking the ‘shipwreck trio’ together based on anything other than having decking with real water at the edge as the set. The Comedy of Errors is a very funny play that’s worked well every time I’ve seen it. There was a fair bit of subtext violence pushed into the edges, and that accentuated Antipholus and Dromio’s terror and confusion, but at heart it’s a great comedy.