The Comedy of Errors

William Shakespeare
Propeller
Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield
(2011)

The Comedy of Errors producyion photo by Manuel Harlan

Bold and brassy, full of invention and fun, Propeller's production of The Comedy of Errors starts a long tour (which includes international as well as British venues) at The Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield. Artistic Director, Ed Hall, tells us in a programme note, "We don't want to make the plays 'accessible', as this implies that they need 'dumbing down' in order to be understood, which they don't." Instead, the company wants to 'explore the richness of Shakespeare's plays with rigour and invention'. This they succeed in doing.

The plot of the play turns upon the separation soon after birth of two pairs of twins, masters and servants: Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse; and Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus. The humour and dramatic action of the play arises from many instances of mistaken identity when they are eventually reunited in Ephesus.

The production style has antecedents in vaudeville, pantomime, silent films, and even Tom and Jerry cartoons. Comic action is invariably accompanied by musical sound effects, so when the two Dromios are regularly beaten up by their masters (and mistresses) the blows clearly miss their target (stage feints) and the sound effect makes the violence safe and entertaining. Sound effects are also attached to words and inanimate objects. Each mention of the crucial chain (necklace) which dominates the latter part of the plot, is accompanied by a 'ting'; a 'squelch' effect accompanies the Officer's leather boots.

This is an all male company. This allows for outrageous costumes and over the top performances for the men cross dressed as women. As Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, tall, thin Robert Hands displays skinny legs in silver lamé tights below a frou-frou mini skirt and a belted short yellow coat. He totters around the stage in high heeled sandals and gives an increasingly demented performance as the distressed and confused wife.

By contrast, David Newman, as Luciana, is more restrained and convincingly female than her sister: this makes occasional resort to the hip flask and sudden outbursts of uncharacteristically violent behaviour all the more amusing. Entries by Kelsey Brookfield as a stunning bunny girl Courtesan, and Chris Myles as a whip toting Lady Abbess were show stoppers.

At the heart of the production are the two sets of twins: each pair looks convincingly alike, dressed in identical costumes, and employing similar mannerisms. The two Dromios wear shaggy dog wigs, which aid the illusion. A frenetic pace is sustained, through all the twists and turns of the plot, and beautifully timed comic business.

The production is strong on visual effects and action; but Shakespeare's language is given full rein, particularly in set piece sequences. Richard Frame's description of the fat greasy kitchen maid engaged to his brother is ably supported by illustrative gesture, which aids our understanding and enjoyment of the text. The appearance of Pinch the conjurer towards the end of the play is turned into hugely enjoyable revivalist meeting. This is a thoroughly enjoyable evening in the theatre and much recommended.

The second play included in this tour is Richard III. It will be interesting to see how the company's production values are adapted for a history play. Richard III is at The Lyceum from 25 -29 Jan.

The tour continues at a number of British and international venues until 23 July.

Seth Ewin reviewed this production at the King's, Edinburgh. It was also reviewed at Hampstead by Philip Fisher.

Reviewer: Velda Harris