The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare
Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
(2011)

Hard on the heels of a Tempest notable for the prominence of H20 throughout comes a Comedy of Errors which also abounds with a sense of the aquatic.

It's the second production this year of Shakespeare's earliest comedy - and perhaps earliest play, argues the company's director, Andrew Hilton - but it's of a very different, um, water, to the one by Propeller, the first of three this year.

Ed Hall, the director of Propeller's production, opted, like others before him, to throw in the kitchen sink and all other fittings in an adaptation which relocated proceedings to Mexico. The production was high on comic energy and terrific fun but the headlong pace prevented a more considered exploration of the sense of dislocation and alienation in the play and some lines went for little.

Hilton begins with the text, one feels, and seems to have fastened on an early speech by Antipholus of Syracuse, in which the twin laments the loss of his doppelganger brother with the first of a series of references to the wet stuff: "I to the world am like a drop of water/That in the ocean seeks another drop".

"Though Shakespeare was an inland boy, the imagery of the sea is always powerful in his work; the sense of the vastness and its capacity to erase human life from the physical record leaving only a torturing absence in the tablet of memory," Hilton writes in the programme notes to the production.

You can see his point - there's Viola who is separated from her twin brother Sebastian by a storm which wrecks their ship; Pericles who is separated from her daughter Mariana, whose name means literally of the sea, while also on a voyage, not to mention the estranged Duke of Milan.

What Hilton achieves is a sense of almost bi-polar activity where nothing can be take for granted and where, as P G Wodehouse had it, "If Fate slips you a bit of goose with one hand, it is sure to give you the sleeve across the windpipe with the other. One minute people are queuing up to press gold into your hands and invite you for dinner the next you are being abused or beaten."

The action is set in Edwardian times in an approximate Turkey and, as usual, props are minimal - a few chairs, some benches and lanterns.

It's not the funniest production of the play you'll ever see, although it did deliver plenty of laughs, but the humour arose directly out of the text, rather than extraneous stage business that unchecked can threaten to overwhelm it.

Of the 16-strong ensemble, I particularly enjoyed Richard Neale's Dromio of Syracuse of whom one expects to see a lot more, and Ffon Jolly as Luciana.

And at just over two hours, including an interval, The Comedy of Errors never outstays its welcome. Recommended.

Pete Wood