The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare
New Bristol Old Vic
(2003)

Bristol Old Vic goes from strength to strength with a stylish and thoughtful early comedy by William Shakespeare which enjoyed a near capacity audience on the night I saw it during the beginning of the week. Long may it continue.

Joint artistic directors David Farr and Simon Reade are transforming the fortunes of the once mighty theatre, which was home to the likes of Peter O'Toole, since they took over last year. Following a highly acclaimed production of Coriolanus for the RSC and a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for Bristol Old Vic last season, which is up for two awards, Farr takes on this earliest of Shakespearean comedies which once again hinges on mistaken identities, the twist here being that there are two pairs of twins.

Years previously, Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse has gone to Epidamnus with his wife where she bore him two identical sons. At the same inn where they were stopping, another woman also gave birth to two identical twins whom Egeon purchased to become servants to his two sons. However, en route home, their ship runs into a storm and Egeon, one of his sons and one of the other boys become separated from his wife and the other two boys.

Five years on and Egeon has come to Ephesus in search of his missing son and companion, despite an edict from the Duke of Ephesus forbidding anyone from the rival city of Syracuse on pain of death, or forfeit of a thousand marks.

The tone of the production is set by the opening scene in which Egeon (Will Tacey), is interrogated by the unseen Duke of Ephesus and condemned to death. While not without humour, this Comedy has forfeited the easier, lighter laughs available, as with the recent RSC revival, for a deeper, darker exploration of the nature of identity and personality and the attendant anxiety and instability.

Emphasising this is a witty and stylish set by Ti Green which lends the feeling of a De Chirico townscape. Alternate pairs of lampposts and statues slide on or off, or rise from and descend to the stage. A stepped bridge allows various characters to exit from or enter the square, while a mirrored wall, which serves as the outside of a house, also reflects back the images of characters. The setting, judging from the costumes, is roughly mid-1940s, with soldiers armed with rifles, although, inevitably, the play's characters refer to 'swords'.

The acting by all the cast is assured; vigorous and well-spoken. Phillipa Peak, gives a passionate, if perhaps insufficiently modulated, performance as Adriana and both Daniel Betts as Antipholus of Ephesus and Mark Rice-Oxley as Dromio of Ephesus give fine performances but, for me, the evening belonged to Paul Ready as Dromio of Syracuse and, especially, Christopher Staines as Antipholus of Syracuse, whose alternate bafflement, wonder and sheer terror is wonderfully realised. An enjoyable and intriguing night out.

Reviewer: Pete Wood