The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

From 16 March 2012 to 06 October 2012

Review by Kevin Quarmby

The dockside of Ephesus is strewn with steel barrels ominously seeping their poisonous cargo. Wooden decking cracks and creaks. Downstage right it collapses into an aquarium-sided seascape complete with wafting weed. Overhead, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre fly tower, removed with the recent renovations, is strangely reconstituted by a strategic flying crane that slices diagonally above the stage. An anchor, chains and a buoy complete the nautical theme of this decidedly industrialized Comedy of Errors scene.

Centre stage, a pallet supports a gaily coloured aquarium filled to the brim with bubbling water. Blackout, and as the lights come up, a figure is being tortured by military personnel. Egeon, his head thrust in the water, struggles for life. Solinus, more Clydeside docker Boss than distinguished duke, listens as Egeon narrates the sorrowful tale of his loss. The scene is set for an evening of fast-paced slapstick humour and witty wordplay, interspersed by cruel images of human trafficking and summary execution.

When the prisoner Egeon (Nicholas Day) is escorted offstage, two wooden packing cases remain. Out of one, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse emerge, two stowaways in a dangerous port. From the other, a group of illegal asylum seekers, eager to escape into the Ephesus night-time streets, hurry away with their wares.

Jonathan McGuinness as Antipholus of Syracuse and Bruce Mackinnon as his Dromio sidekick, explode with energy and comic wit. Mackinnon's Dromio, reminiscent of a ‘Where's Wally’ woollen hatted character, is pure innocence and charm. The twins to this hapless pair, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, are played with equal skill by Stephen Hagan and Felix Hayes. With his leonine features and painfully endearing personality, Hayes threatens to steal an unstealable show. The pointing of his finger and pursing of his lower lip are sufficient to send even the sternest spirit into apoplectic laughter.

Through the technology of the dockside crane, we next meet Adriana and her sister, Luciana. This young wife and equally young sister-in-law seem buried in their Ephesian existence of tea and cakes and cream buns. Adriana, played with manic intensity by Kirsty Bushell, would melt and murder any husband's heart. Her seduction of the man she believes her own is sexy to its very core. When she realises her mistake, Adriana almost explodes with grief; that is, until her husband is greeted by his own indiscretion, the delicious Courtesan of Amie Burns Walker.

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi with a lightness of touch that belies the innovative interpretation at this production's core, The Comedy of Errors is a triumphantly realised comic masterpiece. Two hours long including interval, the play rollicks and rolls with comedy moment falling over comedy moment. Jon Bausor's exotically industrial design adds to the humour. Coups de theatre follow hot on each other as sets and objects fly and slide onto the stage, often to the amazement of cast and audience alike.

There are so many fun moments in this fun-packed play that it seems unfair to single out specific instances or characters. Significant, however, is Jonathan Slinger's menacingly maniacal Doctor Pinch, a leather-clad and tattooed religious fanatic, more at home with the electrified crocodile clip than the rosary bead.

This production is the closest you'll get to the comic essence of such an absurd play. A committed cast, a wonderful set and the loving direction of Zuabi, combine to create great theatre. All ages will love its charm and naughty innocence. A truly wondrous production that showcases the very best of RSC talent in the week of Shakespeare's birthday celebrations.