Shakespeare’s Speakeasy: The Comedy of Errors
William Shakespeare, adapted by Steven Arran
Alphabetti Theatre, Newcastle
Here’s how it works: actors are invited to apply to take part; some are chosen (but they don’t know who their fellow performers are); a month before the show they are sent the script (actually just their part and cue lines only); they have a rehearsal on the day of performance and then they perform in front of a paying audience. And, incidentally, that audience doesn’t know what the play is until it starts.
Was the packed house at Alphabetti looking forward to a real car crash of a production—or did they, perhaps, know something I didn’t? Hmmm.
The thing about The Comedy of Errors is that it has, quite frankly, a ridiculous plot. Two sets of twins (with the same names?), one set the masters and one set the servants, are separated and brought up in different cities which are at odds with each other. They even dress the same. Then, ending up in the same city, they are constantly being mistaken for each other, each Antipholus the master not even recognising his servant Dromio (and vice versa).
It’s a farce!
Of course it is, although we don’t normally associate Shakespeare with farce—it’s much too low-brow for him. Or so many like to think.
The chaos of the plot, the rushing back and forth, the mistaken identities, are fertile soil for the confusion and comedy that can arise from lack of rehearsal. And to add to the already farcical nature of the piece director Arran casts two women as the Antipholi (Bethan Amber as A of Ephesus and Kylie Ann Ford as A of Syracuse) with identical beards and moustaches painted on their faces. One Dromio (of Syracuse) is a woman (Gabriella Pond) whilst D of Ephesus is a man (Elijah Young).
And we accept it, quite readily.
Then we have props which are drawn on cardboard. We have a goldsmith (Andy Buzzeo) who, with the addition of a wig, turns into a courtesan (with just a touch of the drag queen). We have mistakes—“They’ve missed a bit out.” “Right, we’ll start again!” There were even a few comments from the audience, not of a heckling nature but prompted by being overcome by the emotion of the moment.
Every single one of the cast of nine—those already mentioned plus Nigel Collins (Aegeon), Melanie Dagg (Adriana), Natasha Haws (Luciana and Emilia) and Louis Roberts (Duke and everybody else)—were fully committed and drive the piece along at a frantic pace, whilst never slipping out of character for a moment.
Shakespeare Speakeasy only runs for one night and that is right because the spontaneity and panic-fuelled adrenalin of having just six or so hours of rehearsal makes a major contribution to the success of the performance.
It was hilarious! The mayhem and madness of this novel approach to performing Shakespeare complement the humour of the original and don’t feel at all out of place. After all, Comedy is one of his earliest plays and is, it must be admitted, a bit rough round the edges—not as much as Two Gentlemen, of course, but pretty obviously not a mature piece.
And for a proselytising Shakespeare freak like me, it was great to hear a number of people saying after the show that they had never understood or enjoyed a Shakespeare play until tonight. All power to Shakespeare’s Speakeasy’s elbow!
I shall look forward to more. Just imagine what they could do with the most melodramatic of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard III…