The Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night's Dream

William Shakespeare
The Lyceum, Sheffield

Propeller's The Comedy of Errors
The company of A Midsummer Night's Dream Credit: Dominic Clemence

Propeller Company (Artistic Director Ed Hall) is embarking on a nationwide and international tour which started in Sheffield in late January and continues until the end of June.

Propeller was formed as a touring company and is dedicated to presenting dynamic productions of Shakespeare’s plays that mix ‘a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic’.

The two plays offered on the present tour are a joy to behold and demonstrate the scope of the company’s work (though both plays are comedies) and the wide range of performance, musical and visual skills that make up the company’s distinctive, irreverent, hugely imaginative performance style.

The Comedy of Errors is a fast-moving farce, loosely based on an earlier play by the classical dramatist Plautus, but made infinitely more complicated by Shakespeare’s provision of a second set of twins, which doubles the opportunities for mistaken identity and the unrestrained madness that ensues.

This is a revival of an earlier (2010) production so, although the cast has changed, the comic business has been honed to perfection and is delivered with assurance. The play is full of beatings especially, though not exclusively, of the two unfortunate servants; confusion leads to an unintended marital infidelity and at least two characters are nearly executed.

All of this is delivered with the lightest possible touch, at a tremendous pace, with wit and style, and an underlying sense of humour constantly alert to further comic possibilities. For most of the performance I had a fixed smile from ear to ear.

Percussion and singing are important elements in the production. All of the cast sing well, and between them play a wide variety of instruments. Percussion sounds are used to punctuate and clarify the plot line (a ding every time the gold chain is mentioned) or simply for fun, like the Officer’s creaking leather trousers.

The visual appearance of the cast (body shape, spindly legs, wigs, costume) is plumbed for entertainment value, in addition to the pantomime dame element (which never palls) of seeing men tottering around in women’s shoes.

In an excellent cast, it is worth crediting the two sets of twins for their rapid but always comprehensible delivery of lines and their slapstick skills. James Tucker as Adriana, the betrayed and often confused wife, who plays Titania in the companion show, has excellent comic timing, but also, at times, suggests the anguish that lies just below the surface.

The Revivalist meeting, led by Darrell Brockis as Pinch, the Mountebank and Conjurer, is a clever modernisation of the text, and a hugely enjoyable set piece which displays the company’s performance skills to best advantage.

I was fortunate to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the evening of the same day. After the colourful cacophony of Errors, designer Michael Pavelka had drained his palette of colour. The set is a box covered in cream netting, with levels cleverly provided by a row of chairs suspended above head height, which provide a high walkway and a platform for observation.

The actors make their first appearance in skilfully crafted cream body suits, which make them look like jointed wooden dolls. This is the basic costume for the fairies, with additional items added when they assume alternative roles in the action. There are exceptions to this: Puck (an entrancing performance by Joseph Chance) is resplendent in red and yellow striped tights, a corset and a tutu, Oberon (Darrell Brockis again) has a sparkling black cloak and Hippolyta (Will Featherstone) a curious train, which includes a whole, slightly moth eaten fur coat.

The logistics of the performance are impressive, and the backstage costume changes must be fascinating to watch. Any actor not engaged in his principal role at any time, swells the ranks of the fairies; and there was some doubling up. In the final court scene I missed Hermia (Matthew McPherson), only to realise that s/he was also the lion with a mop on her head in the Mechanicals’ play.

Where Errors is fast moving and outrageously funny, the early scenes of the Dream are lyrical, poetic and magical. James Tucker’s delivery of Titania’s long speech during her first encounter with Oberon is compelling and tinged with regret. Initially, the fairies, who resemble a chorus from a Greek play, are provided with harmonicas, which make mystical sounds, suggesting bird song but also creating the mysterious atmosphere of the enchanted wood.

Music and choreography are very important in this production. Early in the action, while Puck circles round them, the fairies rise and fall like seed blown on the wind; later, they sing old folk songs and perform traditional dance steps, in honour of the very British cultural context of the play, despite the Athenian setting.

But, as the confusions of the night set in, the physical comedy which characterises the company’s work is given full rein. The squabbles between the lovers lead to increasingly manic mock fights, with twanged braces used as the ultimate offensive weapon. There is a childlike quality to this which is in keeping with the white-faced, doll-like appearance of the actors. The Mechanical scenes are full of invention, and Bottom’s ‘transformation’ is simply but effectively achieved with ears and teeth.

Propeller is now a well-established company which has been touring its shows for nearly 20 years. It is important that work of this quality is being seen by international as well UK audiences. And how inspirational it is for the next generation of theatregoers to see work that ‘clarifies’ Shakespeare's text and also provides a completely joyful theatrical experience.

Reviewer: Velda Harris