The Comedy of Errors
RSC at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle
If the reaction of first night audiences is anything to go by, then The Comdy of Errors is set to be the big hit of the RSC Newcastle season. Dream and Twelfth Night received enthusiastic receptions, but that accorded to Comedy was postively euphoric. As Steve Orme so rightly says in his review of this production in Stratford, for some reason the play is not often performed nowadays, although Illyria toured an enjoyable production earlier this year, as did Northern Broadsides. And yet it is an enjoyable romp, more accessible to modern audiences than most of the comedies and allowing the director and company more freedom than any of the others, with the possible exception of Dream.
Director Nancy Meckler takes full advantage of this freedom, uniting the physicality of Shared Experience (of which she is artistic director) with the RSC's mastery of text. She misses no opportunity of getting a laugh, and yet none of the humour is bolted on: it arises from the characters and text. Take one very simple visual gag: Antipholus of Syracuse seeks to defend himself and goes for his sword - and waves the scabbard at his attackers! He had confused his hands, holding the scabbard (which was slipped through his belt, not fastened to it) in the right hand and pulling out the sword with the left. Yet another instance of mistaken identity!
Her inventiveness is particulary evident in Egeon's long scene-setting speech, which can easily get tedious, using the reactions of whole crowd of onlookers to add humour and puppets to illustrate the story - what a great deal of benefit the RSC has had from their co-operation last year with the Little Angel Puppet Theatre in Venus and Adonis!
The use of musicians onstage, too, added to the fun, for they not only provided music but sound effects too.
The design (by Katrina Lindsay) can best be described as eclectic: the officers look like nothing so much as Voodoo priests and, indeed, there is a definite Haitian air about this Ephesus. The rest of the costumes are of a variety of styles and periods, and yet the whole thing blends together in a carnival-like profusion of colours which adds to the joyousness of the whole production.
The two sets of twins look remarkably alike, so much so that even the audience fell to wondering who was onstage at any one time. This was particularly true of the two Dromios (of Ephesus played by Forbes Masson and of Syracuse by Jonathan Slinger).
The high quality of performances by every member of the company, from the two sets of twins to the non-speakers, was impressive, with the afore-mentioned Masson and Slinger, Christopher Colquhoun (Antipholus of Ephesus), Joe Dixon (Antipholus of Syracuse) and Suzanne Burden (Adriana) standing out.
Having said that, credit must also go to the ever-reliable Richard Cordery and to Frances Jeater for making Egeon and the Abbess Emilia into real characters rather than just the scene-setting and winding-up functions that they so often are.
No one can pretend that The Comedy of Errors is anything other than a "good laugh". There are no depths, no glances at the human condition or commentary on people's foibles; there is no darker side such as we find in Twefth Night: what we have is a comedy in the modern rather than the Aristotelian sense. The premise may stretch credulity but that's part of the fun - and "fun" is the word which best sums up this production!
Reviewer: Peter Lathan