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The Comedy of Errors – Barbican (RSC)

Phillip Breen’s high-energy take on Shakespeare’s early comedy makes largely sublime additions to the source material – and makes you wonder why Shakespeare comedies can’t be like this more often

Guy Lewis and Toyin Ayedun-Alase in The Comedy of Errors

Most directorial takes on Shakespearean comedy (in Britain, at least) tend to conform to one of three approaches. The first is simply to do the play, trying to milk laughs where they are to be found but largely treating the play as fixed and sacrosanct. The whole thing is much a ritual as a performance. Another option is to mine in the psychological hinterland of the play on stage, as critics and scholars have done to the text. Jan Kott notoriously and violently reads A Midsummer Night’s Dream as a vehicle for characters’ repressed instincts towards sado-masochism and bestiality. On stage, this darkness, earthiness and (quite literal) animal passion have been mined in Robert Lepage’s mud-spattered National Theatre production in 1992, and Joe Hill-Gibbins’ similarly boggy Young Vic version in 2017. In the same vein, Tasmin Greig’s Malvolia (in Simon Godwin’s gender-swapped National Theatre Twelfth Night in 2017) was no mere comic dupe; instead she was perhaps the play’s main character, heartbroken and victimised by notionally comic cruelty.

The final approach, however, is to approach the play as an existing structure onto which all manner of contemporary gags can be added. It is fair to say that Breen largely opts for this, to terrific effect – though the occasional Shakespearean rough edge remains unsmoothed. Yet also, to this heady mix, he adds just a splash of psychological richness and, while the results leave the heartstrings largely un-tugged, the production at least provides a warm glow of satisfaction at its resolution. It is hardly surprising that The Arts Desk aptly branded it a ‘Shakespearean Christmas panto’.

Nicholas Prasad, Avita Jay and Rowan Polonski in The Comedy of Errors

Breen stuffs the show full of all manner of props, beginning at the very start, with its exceptional quartet of singers (Alex Saunders, Dunja Botic, Dale Harris and David Jones) testing out their microphones. ‘1, 2’, ‘1, 2’, they say, in the first of many clever touches, foregrounding the play’s distinctive doubles from the outset. Paddy Cunneen’s music is truly extraordinary. Its riotous energy perfectly evokes the chaotic, yet intricately interweaved narratives of the central characters. The a cappella singing somehow brings to mind hip hop beats and Medieval plainchant all at once. This genre-blending vibrancy is matched by a Max Jones’ majestic set, which mirrors the play’s almost mathematical structure in its checkerboard and isometric designs. The colour scheme is unusually vivid, with the golden browns typical of ancient world sets (of stuffier, more traditional Shakespeare productions) offset by bright pinks and the azure-blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

Into this well-conceived space, the production places many comic routines, which often take little more than a minor cues from the original text. Yet Breen generally manages to serve side-splitting laughs while still serving his characters well. While at dinner, Antipholus of Syracuse (Guy Lewis) is propositioned by Adriana (Naomi Sheldon, who gives perhaps the most complex performance of the play). She confuses him for her husband Antipholus of Ephesus and expects him to come home with her. Antipholus of Syracuse’s initial discomfort at her physicality is signalled by his getting out a bottle of hand sanitiser, to sterilise him of the bodily contact. The audience laugh at Lewis’ characterisation of Antipholus as a bumbling, out-of-his-depth Englishman abroad, as well as the meta-irony of the prop and the new significance it has acquired the last two years. (Similarly, the abbess who appears at the end wears a face mask; she is the doctor who will heal the play of its madness.) Yet as Adriana steps up her seduction attempts, a sudden spasm sends a (rather ejaculative) spurt of hand sanitiser high above the stage, towards the audience. It is a magnificent physical gag, but one that speaks to Antipholus’ sordid delight at his circumstances – deciding to play along with the strange events that befalls him due to his misidentification in Ephesus.

Later on, the Syracusan Dromio and Antipholus discuss Dromio’s comparative experience of female attention in Ephesus, from a very large women who works in the kitchen. This leads to a section of the text which most directors would surely cut before even beginning with the play, in which parts of her body are compared to various nations of Europe in an overwrought inversion of a poetic blazon. Caroline McGinn’s relatively critical review in Time Out singles out this moment as part of why the play is ‘unmodernisable’, given how it relies on crude jokes about fatness to pad out its scanty plot. Certainly, Breen’s addition of a fourth-wall breaking interjection from Dromio that ‘these jokes are 400 years old’, telling us that we should try a bit harder to laugh, is likely to be divisive. Perhaps the 400-year-old excuse does legitimise it a little, or at least somewhat neutralise critical dissent – especially when compared to the pure, artless gratuity of the fat jokes included in the National Theatre’s disastrous Manor.

Yet Breen is decidedly not putting this play on stage for the sake of faithfulness alone. His take is (often brilliantly) filled with directorial liberties, so amending or excising the crasser moments of the text would have been entirely possible and in keeping with the production. Instead, it feels like half an attempt was made to rescue the poorly aged material. Adopting an ironic distance from the text, Antipholus and Dromio posture as bawdy club comics, tapping invisible microphones (their voices amplified despite the lack of mics) and delivering the material with knowing eye-rolls. As a result, the audience go for it merrily. Indeed, on the night I saw it, it led to a fantastic moment of (I think) off-the-cuff audience interaction, when a heckler in the stalls was put down with the quip: ‘I thought I was the one with the imaginary microphone.’ I can see why Breen decided not to lose this section, but perhaps he would have been right to.

Otherwise, it is a terrifically considered and exquisitely detailed production. Breen ensures there’s never a dull moment and fills the stage with all kinds of business. Even the extras are given miniature narratives. A bored film crew, hired to document some kind of grand opening, come alive with gonzo journalistic excitement when violence erupts. In the second half, a man slowly walks back and forth upstage, carrying a comically increasing number of shopping bags from the RSC gift shop. At the heart of the production’s detail is the decision that almost everyone on stage should be angry with each other – apart from the Dromios, and Antipholus of Syracuse. The incidental characters become quietly incensed. A diner in a restaurant scene is visibly irate when his chair is purloined so that Antipholus and Dromio can sit down – peppering in extra laughs while also subtly increasing the play’s intensity. Later, one of the singers is rendered livid when Dromio steals her microphone. It is entirely in keeping with the original play that the main characters’ unwitting presences in Ephesus are an irritation, even causing material harm, to the people that live there.

As brilliant as the production is, it would be fair to say that Shakespeare provides an organising structure to which comedy can be added, rather than being the true source of the comedy. Unlike in The Wife of Willesden, say –Zadie Smith’s reworking of Chaucer to contemporary Kilburn – the jokes are largely additions here, rather than finding the humour in the original. Perhaps The Comedy of Errors is simply less fertile material than The Canterbury Tales. Indeed, placing an early work from Shakespeare next to Chaucer in his prime arguably makes for an unfair comparison. Shakespeare’s comedy here comes not from exposing fundamental truths about the world than from wordplay – and comic language in The Comedy of Errors is fundamentally obscuring, rather than revealing. In Ephesus, speaking is an invitation to be misunderstood.

The farce plot certainly creates the right conditions for comedy, but Breen brings it to life by envisioning new jokes. One such triumphant comic routine recontextualises Shakespeare’s leaden series of puns on the baldness of Father Time in Act 2. The punning now begins after the obsequious waiter bends down to pour wine, when his hair flips over – revealed as a toupee. The references to ‘bald pate[s]’, ‘periwig[s]’, and ‘bald conclusion[s]’ now function as an extended mockery of the waiter – hardly sophisticated, but virtuosic in its delivery and transcending the fundamental aimlessness that often pervades The Comedy of Errors. Yet what truly delights is not the puns themselves, but the waiter’s visible anger at the socially inferior Dromio being juxtaposed with toadying sycophancy towards Antipholus.

Naomi Sheldon and Jonathan Broadbent in The Comedy of Errors

One criticism that could be levelled at The Comedy of Errors is its sheer redundancy. Its plot is perhaps too mechanical. It ticks like a clock (and indeed, the text is liberally scattered with time imagery). Arguably its characters all have a similar problem as those in Chekhov; if people just listened to each other, then maybe everything could be sorted out. Yet their inability to express themselves and communicate is no great tragedy, only intensely irksome to all involved. The overarching threat to the life of Egeon is purely structural and legal. The Duke wants to let him off, but the law will not let him. Only by the end of the play, does he decide to pardon Egeon, and refuses to accept the ransom required for such a stay of execution. Two and a half hours, revealing the chaotic, maddening excesses of bureaucracy, is seemingly enough to change the Duke’s mind.

A darker version of the play would likely emphasise the toll on Antipholus of Ephesus, a pillar of the community plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare, locked out of his home by over-zealous instructions to a guard and payment demanded of him for a chain he has not received. I also wondered about the political implications of the text. As a story of misidentification, assumptions and a refusal to engage and listen to what is actually being said, the play is arguably a proleptic satire on the effects of echo chambers.

Though Breen’s production is certainly not angling for a weighty political message – and nor should it – he does address some of the other ‘unmodernisable’ aspects surprisingly well. The groan-worthy misunderstandings that grate on the page are played with such wildly comic energy that they are sold remarkably well. The play’s darker aspects are well-handled too. While keeping the overall effect light as a feather, Breen imbues the violence with some heft. The lighting darkens and the music loses all vestiges of irony, the production seemingly withdrawing its support for these moments – or at least mounting a critique of its characters – without losing its otherwise tightly wound structure. It refuses to trivialise the master-servant violence, compared to the overt slapstick meted out to Antipholus of Ephesus. When the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio are captured and tied together as punishment, Breen even uses this to make a smart connection to the shipwreck they survived as children, lashed to the mast together. The production suggests just a whiff of trauma, finally resolved by the play’s remarkable resolution (which almost resembles those of the late plays, especially Pericles).

The play ends with the two Dromios on stage. They will ‘draw cuts’ (or lots) for which twin gets to be the senior, but only after the play has finished. For now, they will ‘go hand in hand, not one before the other.’ As the singers’ refrain ‘one, two’ is heard for a final time, these comic figures finally attain a seriousness which spells the play’s end. It is fitting that the happy ending is as much theirs as it is the others’.

The Comedy of Errors

Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Phillip Breen, Design by Max Jones, Music by Paddy Cunneen, Lighting by Tina MacHugh, Sound by Dyfan Jones, Movement Direction by Charlotte Broom, Fight Direction by Renny Krupinski, Starring Toyin Ayedun-Alase, Jonathan Broadbent, Antony Bunsee, Alfred Clay, William Grint, Greg Haiste, Avita Jay, Zoe Lambert, Guy Lewis, Dyfrig Morris, Baker Mukasa, Patrick Osborne, Rowan Polonski, Nicholas Prasad, Riad Richie, Sarah Seggari, Naomi Sheldon
Reviewed 27th November 2021

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