The Comedy of Errors
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford
Why do so many companies shy away from The Comedy of Errors? It's one of Shakespeare's least-performed plays, yet I'm baffled as to why it's often overlooked in preference to some of the "safer" comedies.
Is it because the plot centres on two sets of twins and directors can't find lookalikes? That argument doesn't add up. Anyone sitting beyond the first few rows of the stalls probably can't make out how dissimilar the supposed twins might be. And having actors who don't look identical can add to the fun.
Is it because some people consider The Comedy of Errors to be one of Shakespeare's earliest works and consequently inferior to his later masterpieces? That's no excuse either; no matter when it was written, it contains some beautiful verse and a wealth of funny lines. It's a much better play than, for instance, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, yet that's performed more regularly.
Is it because there's only the mistaken-identity trick, which Shakespeare uses again in some of his later plays, to sustain the action? Admittedly it's a bit lacking in plot depth but The Comedy of Errors is a frothy romp which ranks among the Bard's best for hilarity.
The play is relatively short and holds your interest throughout. It doesn't put directors in a straitjacket - it lends itself to all sorts of interpretations, including a version I saw at Stafford which was set in a 1940s seaside town. The Stratford production has the atmosphere of a festival; it's almost like a circus.
Yet even the RSC doesn't appear to have a lot of confidence in the play. In the current season, The Comedy of Errors is being performed 44 times, compared with 79 for A Midsummer Night's Dream and 69 for Twelfth Night. Nancy Meckler's production deserves a bigger audience, not just for those playing the two sets of twins.
Joe Dixon is outstanding as Antipholus of Syracuse, putting everything into his performance, acting with arms, legs, eyes and voice. He beams when he's accepted like an old friend in Ephesus and discovers he has a wife he didn't know about. He appears genuinely upset whenever he's accused of a demeanour which is a result of mistaken identity. And a scene in which he gets his legs caught up in his braces is exceptionally funny. On the other hand, Christopher Colquhoun is more aristocratic and slightly more reserved as Antipholus of Ephesus, almost outraged when accusations are levelled at him.
Forbes Masson and Christopher Slinger are equally impressive as the two Dromio servants, delivering their lines with impeccable timing and making sure they don't miss a single opportunity to get the audience laughing.
There's also a delightful performance from Suzanne Burden as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. She's deliberately over-dramatic, pitching her pleading and anger at just the right level to get the best comic effect possible.
Katrina Lindsay's set, with enormous, broken masts and ripped sails, gives a constant reminder of how the twins were separated during a shipwreck.
There's also a neat touch with puppets being used as the two sets of twins during Syracusian merchant Egeon's long, background-setting speech in the first act.
Five musicians are on stage for most of the time, delivering sound effects at just the right moment to increase the fun.
A couple of strange touches: Meckler's carnival atmosphere means there's no general look to the costumes. And I failed to see why Neil McGiven, who played the supremely powerful Solinus, Duke of Ephesus, in an understated way, had to be wheeled around everywhere in a barber's chair. But this didn't detract from the enjoyment of what's an uproarious production. It ought to convince other companies to have a go at it.
"The Comedy of Errors" runs until October 15th and then transfers in November to the Theatre Royal, Newcastle and in January to the Novello Theatre, London
Reviewer: Steve Orme