It’s not often that one feels bound to include the word joyous so early in a theatre review, but these are exceptional times, and no other word expresses the true delight everyone felt at being back at the Royal Shakespeare Company in their wonderful new garden theatre. It’s always a treat to enjoy this most accessible and light-hearted of Shakespeare’s plays, although, amongst the fun, director Phillip Breen has emphasised all its darker and more uncomfortable elements. The result is a cross between a traditional, riotous fun-and-frolic-type approach and an unusually close inspection of the discomfort and detachment experienced by its characters.
The RSC is to blame for my love of Comedy of Errors, having sat in the front row of the Aldwych Theatre in December 1977 agog at the magnificent production by Trevor Nunn, which remains the best production of a Shakespeare play I’ve ever seen (and – joy of joys – was recorded for posterity). The play adapts superbly to a summer outdoors setting – and the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Theatre provides both extremely comfy seating and an extraordinarily clear view of the stage. You can be sure, by the way, that the RSC has adopted a strong Covid-secure protocol not only to look after its audience but also its cast and crew, with a longer than usual interval (vital to get visits to both the bar and the toilets done in ample time) and excellent attention to social distancing and hygiene requirements. The super-helpful and plentiful front of house staff did a tremendous job.
You don’t need me to outline the story of the Comedy of Errors (but I will anyway). The states of Syracuse and Ephesus are on a war footing and Syracusan merchant Egeon is under arrest on penalty of death unless he can raise the thousand marks the law requires to save his life. Egeon has nothing to offer save his eloquence, but has no knowledge that one of his sons, and his son’s servant – and, indeed, his wife – have been living in Ephesus after they went missing in a sea disaster. Meanwhile his other son, (and other servant) turn up in Ephesus, looking for their brothers, and get mixed up in a comedy of mistaken identity – because they’re all identical twins. Plautus recognised a good joke when he saw one, didn’t he? I’m not breaking any spoilers when I tell you that Egeon doesn’t die.
Max Jones has created a simple but extremely effective set, with a tiled floor that recreates both cobbled streets and wealthy flooring, plus a back wall that parts in the middle to suggest the all-important abbey where the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio take refuge. Dyfan Jones’ sound design is superb; in particular, the comic scene between A of S and D of S, about the countries embedded in the realms of Luce’s body, works incredibly well with the sound tricks played by the imaginary microphones. One reservation though; at times, the sound of the four beatboxing vocalists became slightly overpowering. More of them later.
It’s the off-beat moments where the production strays from the typical reading of the play that gives you pause for thought. Sound and visual effects emphasise the cruelty of the beatings that Dromio receives from Antipholus of S; we see it as an abusive relationship, like a dog who keeps coming back to its master out of natural devotion but knows it’s only minutes till he will flinch again. And when Antipholus of E is locked out of his own home, the cacophony of howling ridicule that comes from the crowd is enhanced as a mental paranoia that profoundly disturbs and menaces his brain. No pantomime this. The ending, too, is strangely cold; whereas normally you might expect the two Antipholuses to clap each other on the back in an ecstatic reunion, here they’re barely able to look each other in the eye – and the text backs this reading up. The two Dromios consent to leave hand in hand, so a more physical reunion is appropriate; but their long, silent hug becomes uncomfortable as you realise that this is all too much for one of them.
The plays has a hard core of four central characters – the Antipholuses and the Dromios – two additional essential characters – Adrianna and Luciana – and a wealth of lively side characters, who, for me, really made the night. Antony Bunsee’s Egeon is the pinnacle of enfeebled dignity, holding everyone’s attention with his powerful tale of woe, who causes Nicholas Prasad’s excellent Duke Solinus to show unusual compassion. The two characters make a stark visual comparison, with Egeon’s faded glory juxtaposed with Solinus’ smart claret and blue uniform – obviously a member of the West Ham United Light Infantry. Bringing Egeon’s story to a happy conclusion is a fantastic performance by Zoe Lambert as Aemilia, setting the bar for Aemilias of the future, with her hard-hitting no-nonsense Yorkshire bluff providing an excellent comic presence but a perfectly accurate reading of the character.
There’s an extremely funny and vivacious performance by Baker Mukasa as the perplexed goldsmith Angelo, trying to balance his debtor and creditor with beaming but unsuccessful interpersonal skills until the money just isn’t there; I loved Alfred Clay’s Doctor Pinch, portrayed as a yogic charlatan in posing gold lamé; and Toyin Alyedun-Alase’s wonderful Courtesan creates a very striking figure as an almost-dominatrix, alluring and threatening at the same time – you wouldn’t want to cross her. William Grint breathes new life into the character of the gangster second merchant with some fantastic physical comedy, and together with his bodyguard Dyfrig Morris, show how disability can be a positive force on stage. Riad Richie, Patrick Osborne and, audience’s favourite, Sarah Seggari, all bring terrific comic support to their variety of roles.
Guy Lewis captures all Antipholus of Syracuse’s fish out of water status, but very nicely combined with that slight arrogance that accompanies the seasoned tourist traveller. Wonderful use of pauses highlight his polite confusion, and there’s a brilliant bit of comic business with a hand sanitiser that unites the problems of today with an age-old issue to genuine guffaws. Rowan Polonski channels his inner Rik Mayall with a frenetic Antipholus of Ephesus, wrapped up in his public image and desperate not to get a bad camera angle. He provides another strong physical comedy performance which gets him into all sorts of torturous bodily positions.
Jonathan Broadbent’s Dromio of S comes across as one of those servants who pretty much think they’re as important as their master with a degree of detachment and seriousness that helps him escape most of the on-stage madness; perhaps unlike Greg Haiste’s Dromio of E, who throws himself more into the traditional mayhem and comic physicality. When the back wall opens up to allow the brothers all meeting, Mr Broadbent is sat on the back wall, way backstage, deliberately visible and disconcerted, wondering whether he should get up and join the rest of them. That final scene of the long uncomfortable hug cleverly shows the difference between the two personalities. Hedydd Dylan’s Adrianna successfully conveys the character’s frustrations and anger at her husband’s inexplicable behaviour, but I didn’t think she always revealed the warmth or humour that lays beneath the exasperated surface. Avita Jay, though, is excellent as the spirited yet strictly non-feminist Luciana, who avers that a man is master of his liberty and is shocked at what appears to be her brother-in-law’s inappropriate behaviour.
One major bugbear with this production though: the music. It’s a personal thing, and I absolutely accept how skilful it is, and that I may well be out of kilter with everyone else; but I really dislike constant bombardment with vocal shenanigans beatbox-style. And the trouble is that these musical interludes not only separate each scene, but that they also drown out some important text (poor Egeon’s big speech at the beginning is basically ruined by their disrespectful soundtrack) and all to no end. Not only does the music add nothing to our understanding of the story, but it also actively gets in the way of it. Oh – and I didn’t understand all the shopping bags everywhere either.
I admired this production for its boldness in exploring the darker side of the play, and for revealing some essential differences of character between the two sets of brothers. And it’s also studded with some brilliant supporting performances. Not perfect, but certainly entertaining, and a wonderful return to live theatre from this amazing company.
Production photos by Pete Le May