Friday, 19 November 2021

Theatre review: The Comedy of Errors
(RSC / Barbican)

The RSC reopened last summer with the production that was in rehearsals when it had to close in 2020, minus its original star cast, and in a temporary venue designed to make the audience feel confident that they were getting adequate airflow: Phillip Breen's The Comedy of Errors premiered at an outdoor theatre in the RSC's gardens. This very different origin feels relevant as the production transfers to London and the sometimes unforgiving Barbican stage. This is the one with the two pairs of identical twins: Antipholus of Ephesus (Rowan Polonski) and his servant Dromio (Greg Haiste) have lived in Ephesus since they were babies, unaware that they arrived there shipwrecked, and that they each have an identical twin brother in Syracuse, coincidentally with the same names. The Syracuse pair were raised by their father Egeon (Antony Bunsee), so they do know about their brothers, and have been searching for them for some years.

But despite this being their entire reason for travelling, for the purposes of the plot Antipholus of Syracuse (Guy Lewis) and his Dromio (Jonathan Broadbent) seem to completely forget that there might be a pair out there who look identical to them so when, as soon as they arrive in Ephesus, strangers immediately seem to think they know them, they don't put two and two together.

There ensue a number of comic confusions, as not only does everyone else mistake them, but when master and servant get separated, they reunite with the wrong one. The plot also heavily relies on trade, as Antipholus S is constantly being given what he thinks are gifts; but Antipholus E is a prominent local businessman, and these goods will all demand payment, from merchants unaware that they gave them to his twin. Max Jones' design and Paddy Cunneen's music (mostly performed acapella by four onstage musicians) take this capitalist theme and turn Ephesus into a Dubai-like Middle Eastern state, where people are happy to ignore a dictatorship that arbitrarily executes people as long as they can splash their cash on luxuries.

The Comedy of Errors isn't really considered one of Shakespeare's darker comedies, and probably fairly so because I don't think that element is deliberate: I just think that, as one of his very earliest plays, it takes a lot of shortcuts to get its plot working, many of them unpleasant if you think about them too much. Like the corrupt police state that's planning on executing Egeon for accidentally landing on its shores, and allows any number of crooks sanctuary as long as they keep the economy going. Antipholus E is a hard character to like at the best of times, but casting a pregnant actor as Adrianna (Naomi Sheldon,) the wife he's cheating on, is hardly going to make him any more sympathetic.

All this, as well as the honking plot contrivances that require several characters to forget their own life story in order to get fooled by the confusion, can almost be ignored if the production's funny enough, but for me this one didn't come close. The blurb repeatedly describes the director as "comedy master Phillip Breen," and honestly that's useful information because, having seen a number of his comedy productions (not all of them to the end,) I was unaware of this fact. I think he just favours a particular kind of silly, overacted comic style, which occasionally works for me but for the most part doesn't. With a Basil Exposition opening this is a play that can take its time getting going, but although much of tonight's audience did eventually start laughing, I hadn't cracked a smile by the interval. I can appreciate that the "Nell" jokes are such a recurring part of the play that you can't really cut them entirely, but most productions at least seem a bit embarrased about including so many jokes about how fat and ugly an offstage woman is. If you're treating it as your best material that's not a great sign. (Although I did like how Broadbent plays up the fact that Dromio S is more of a court jester than a servant to his Antipholus.)

I did find more to like in the second half, largely from the supporting cast: There's a fun contrast as the heavily pregnant Adrianna tries to keep up in yoga class with her ridiculously flexible sister Luciana (Avita Jay.) I liked Alfred Clay playing Doctor Pinch as a dodgy guru/Joe Wicks hybrid, and Riad Richie's policeman has some fun slapstick when trying to arrest Antipholus E. Some of the most reliable comedy comes from William Grint's Deaf gangster, whose increasingly angry and sweary sign language gets politely toned down by his bodyguard/interpreter (Dyfrig Morris.) It's a nice reminder that inclusive casting isn't only to the benefit of the actors getting the job, but also opens up creative ideas that might not have occured to anyone otherwise.

But any momentum that does get built up seems to dissipate quickly; I come back to what I said at the start of this review, that this probably worked better in a small open-air space on a summer night, than it does watched through the black letterbox in the distance that is the Barbican stage. I felt very much detached from the characters and the comedy, and as the action goes static again at the end I got impatient and irritated with Egeon, who opened the play laboriously explaining that there's two of these guys, not understanding why all these events keep happening that make it seem like there might be two of these guys. Maybe the older I get, the less I like The Comedy of Errors and its contrivances - I'm a theatre nerd, I'm all about suspension of disbelief, but the writer has to do some of the work. Even so, make me laugh enough and I'll forgive a lot; tonight wasn't near enough.

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare is booking until the 31st of December at the Barbican Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Pete Le May.

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