The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Blanche McIntyre
Shakespeare’s Globe, London
Sunday 14th September 2014, 1 pm
Dromio in full flight
Shakespeare for tourists? The Globe necessarily has an aspect of that role, and it’s one William would have heartily approved of. I’ll bet merchants travelling in from Cheshire or Norfolk were lured to The Globe, and we know foreign ambassadors enjoyed it. You can queue and get short notice standing tickets, and it is a great experience, whatever the play. If you’re doing Shakespeare for Tourists, i.e. bringing out the visual and physical aspects as much as possible, The Comedy of Errors is a good choice. Shakespeare’s only straight farce was an early play, derided by the snottier sort of scholar, but a play which I have enjoyed thoroughly every time I’ve seen it. It works.
The beginning of this production means that like every Globe play you really should be in fifteen minutes before the start. It starts with a silent show by Dromio of Ephesus, played by Jamie Wilkes, where he tries to get a line of laundry down with a pole and ladders. He can’t get the final item down in spite of five minutes of hilarious silent acting. It is the best thing in the play, and Jamie Wilkes Dromio is the most memorable performance too. Some tourists are not native-speakers of English, and this pre-show was perfect. That piece of laundry stays there for most of the show, finally dropping at a crucial moment to great applause.
Then the play starts with a crowded market place, The costumes are bright, colourful, shimmering. A 16th century view of Turkey. This has been a popular choice for costumed versions of The Comedy of Errors, latching on Ephesus as a location, even if it had long been a classical ruin by Shakespeare’s era. The Australian RSC and the Bath productions used similar garb. We might wonder why the three from Syracuse are wearing it too, but given the death penalty for being Syracusan, it’s a sensible disguise. We all know that twins who haven’t met since birth find they dress alike, marry wives who look alike, have read the same books and are both fond of the same confectionery bars and so on. We take this as read in this play about two sets of twins. We accept they chose the same clothes, though in modern dress productions it’s easier to think they picked from the same limited choice at Primark. The two Antipholuses in this (Simon Harrison and Matthew Needham) look so alike that we are grateful for the elaborate chain in part two to help us distinguish them. I’m not sure that the women’s clothes are the same era or country, but it’s all colourful and exotic.
Having set up the Shakespeare for All mode, the production proceeds to blow it comprehensively at the start with Egeon (James Laurenson), the Sicilian fetchingly clad in blue turban. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews of this play, Egeon’s long introductory monologue betrays the early origins of this play and that Shakespeare’s stagecraft was still under-developed. Recent directors have tried to get round it with puppets or even flashback mime to boost and explain his story. Egeon has to give us the vital plot: he had twins. He bought twin slaves to serve them. He and his wife set off on a ship. It was wrecked. They tied each son plus his slave to masts. Two ships rescued them separately. Egeon was rescued with one son and one slave. He never saw his wife nor the other son plus slave combination again. He wanders the world seeking them. Importantly he names the son he has saved Antipholus, in memory of the lost twin, and the slave Dromio in memory of his lost twin. I need to pause for breath. I believe that Shakespeare, when done well, should be transparent in plot without York Notes. Egeon’s narrative is the potential barrier to transparency in any production. Here it was delivered with reactions from the crowded market square. The delivery was careful and emotive and slow, but he swivelled from side to side and delivered more to left than right, and when you’re at the sides, as two thirds of the seated audience are, at least half was directed away from you as you watched the back of the head. It was also under-projected. Having complained about under-projection in two reviews the same weekend, I will get my ears checked, but no one else was under-projected. I have seen this difficult beginning done with greater clarity.
Best ever use of an octopus on stage?
The productions strength is vigour, gusto, energy. The physicality is first rate. A lot is slapstick. Antipholus of Syracuse (Simon Harrison) attacks his Dromio (Brodie Ross) with the baskets of market fish strewn around the pillars, and this is the winner in a rare category, and one I doubt will be matched, funniest use of a plastic octopus ever in a stage play. The physicality extends to Adriana (Hattie Lanbury) who joins in the fighting with as much vigour as any of the men. There’s a lot going on, some of it is blink and you’ll miss it, as when someone crashes into a naked statue (Dromio I think) and the statue, which is an otherwise non-working fountain, pees on him. For sheer knockabout fun, this production is marvellous, and the “It’s A Knockout” ambience fits that Shakespeare for Tourists concept.
Adriana (Hattie Ladbury) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Simon Harrison) who cannot believe his luck
I think the director failed on a major scene. Antipholus of Syracuse (A of S) is mistaken by Adriana for her husband, Antipholus of Ephesus (A of E), and invited into the house after a long and very funny snogging session. This is a key part of the play. When the real husband returns home with two merchants, he is refused admission to the house. The Globe is severely hampered here by authenticity. They can only use the inner stage as the house. Other modern productions have been able to show “both sides of the door” at this point. They have also been able to show Adriana and the “wrong twin” carousing, or even romping on the bed, above. The Globe has a door with some compartments that open with hands. The trouble was we saw less than five per cent of the scene, from behind the pillar. We could hear lots of shouting and door knocking, but that was all. You needed to be out front facing directly in … but when you’re directing for a thrust stage with two thirds of the seats at the sides, you really don’t create a scene which can only possibly work facing forward on a proscenium stage. It is simply inept to do so.
Antipholus of Ephesus (Matthew Needham) showered with stuff thrown from the balcony
Then the refusal to admit A of E (if I may) to the house is crucial. In the last three or four productions I’ve seen, we also had a “Did they (Adriana and A of S) have sex or not?” question remaining after the scene, leading to much embarrassment from Adriana and suspicious looks from A of S later. That was lost here. They break out of the scene by having a house v street fight throwing stuff at each other … it starts off with cabbages and ends up with pillars and pots. Very funny physical stuff, but again the Globe is not ideal. The occupants of the house are in the gallery with the musicians. The sun is bright outside, but because it’s the Globe, the house occupants are unlit in the gallery and very hard to see back there in the gloom. There’s a lot of shouting and banging and rough and tumble but the story gets lost in it … and particularly that embarrassing dimension for Adriana and A of E.
Antipholus of Syracuse, laden with gifts and chain meet the Courtesan (Emma Jerrold)
After the interval, the play restarts with an ensemble song, but it’s a dreary, slow piece, and it would be hard to think of a piece of music less suited to the energy level of the rest of the production. The courtesan (Emma Jerrold) took her role as theatrical and I loved her interpretation. Great shoe acting. It is a wonderful cameo part. The detonator for a detonating set sequence used an “ACME” detonator (for Bugs Bunny fans) with ACME in Greek. One of my favourite scenes is where Dromio of Syracuse describes the large servant, Nell, who lusts after him. He does it perfectly, looking around the theatre as he says she is round, like a globe … One of the things the director utilises extremely well at The Globe is the vast width of the stage, here Dromio of S paces out her imagined width of her hips … the whole extent of the stage. At the end, the two Dromios are seated on far extremes for their last scene.
I’ve always enjoyed The Comedy of Errors, I did again, but in the National Theatre and the RSC productions in 2012, there was a genuine “Aaah!” moment at the end. Not a dry eye in the house at the poignancy. This didn’t get that at all. It’s a play where both 2012 productions benefitted from modern dress (especially for the women … short skirts and heels help) and even more so from elaborate and mobile sets. The Globe has not that possibility. It made up with rough and tumble, and the use of the large area so well. I thought it lost on subtlety … this may be Shakespeare’s most farcical play, but there is depth to it. It also lost that sense of fear that the Syracusans have, thinking they have landed in a place of weird magic as things happen to them.
The critical range is wide. Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph gave it 2 stars, the Evening Standard 3 stars, Michael Billington in the Guardian 4 stars, Dominic Maxwell in The Times agreed at four stars, and The Independent 5 stars in a strangely sycophantic piece. The Guardian and Telegraph are the two I rely on most. I’ll split the difference.
OTHER PRODUCTIONS OF THE COMEDY OF ERRORS REVIEWED HERE: