We've nudged a little closer to Rome in this latest offering from the team at Shakespeare's Globe in their 'Edges of Rome' season. The geographical setting is ancient Ephesus, just across the Aegean from Greece, and designer Janet Bird has opted for Roman costumes which have all the hallmarks of those used in the Frankie Howard TV series 'Up Pompeii'. And, strangely, that's where we leave Rome behind, because the basic inspiration for this comedic concoction is about as English as you could possibly get. Besides the costumes of 'Up Pompeii', there's a dash of Monty Python, rather more than a dollop of 'Carry On Cleo', and a smattering of the Ealing Comedies to boot. So, director Christopher Luscombe really hasn't strayed far beyond our own dear shores to get ideas for his new version of Shakespeare's 'The Comedy of Errors'. And judging by the appreciation of the audience, it's a winning recipe. However, Luscombe hasn't simply 'ripped-off' the style of some classics of British humour, he's successfully woven them together with some subtle innovations of his own to create a slapstick-based piece which is often deliciously amusing.
Purists of course will baulk at the lack of respect for the Bard's underlying motifs and themes such as the magic of the city in which the play is set, or indeed to poor old Egeon's plight who, thanks to some ancient and dubious law, is put under sentence of death at the beginning of the play, and awaits his fate in miserable solitude while all the other characters romp their way through the show blissfully unaware of his impending fate. Still, Shakespeare's contrived plot almost begs for the kind of treatment Luscombe has conceived, and it provides a humorous deviation from the doleful tragedies we've already seen in the season. And it also reflects and builds upon the comedy in the last production in the season - the pirate comedy, 'Under The Black Flag'.
The start of this play is always a difficult one to handle - partly because it casts a doom-laden shadow over the whole proceedings, but there's also a lengthy exposition by Egeon that provides the essential back-story for the piece. However, it all started with a mumbling whimper because Richard O'Callaghan's Egeon spoke with a voice that a stage mouse would be ashamed of. So we were all straining to hear anything of what he was saying, and desperately willing O'Callaghan to 'pump up the volume'. Sadly this never came about, leaving the audience confused and bewildered until the 'pennies began to drop', and the complex pieces of the plot began to slot into place.
Essentially, 'The Comedy of Errors' encapsulates some of Shakespeare's favourite subjects - twins, shipwrecks, fate, and mistaken identity. Unlike some of his other plays which involve twins, here we're given a double dose - two sets of twins who, even more confusingly, have the same names: one set being called Antipholus, and one set Dromio. Separated in a shipwreck, the twins are now teamed in master-servant pairings. One set, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio, have just landed in Ephesus where, unbeknown to them, the other pairing - Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio, are happily ensconced in respectable and prosperous normality. But, as the new arrivals start meandering their way through the city, it's not long before the inhabitants mistake them for the local Antipholus/ Dromio pair, causing much confusion and mirth along the way. And when the Antipholuses get separated from their respective Dromios, they mistakenly give instructions to the wrong servants who end up with sore heads as they're soundly beaten for disobeying orders they've never been given. Still with me? Well, it's a set-up more than worthy of a Monty Python sketch, and in the same vein that the Rogers/Thomas team devised for their 'Carry On' films. So it doesn't take the mind of a criminal genius to see why Luscombe has chosen to flavour his production by drawing on classics of British comedy.
In spite of O'Callaghan's incomprehensible mutterings, the rest of the cast were on fine form. Andrew Havill and Simon Wilson were suitably bemused, but eagerly comic as the Antipholuses, and Sam Alexander and Eliot Giuralarocca had the air of Baldrick from 'Black Adder'. And there's fine support too from Sarah Woodward as Adriana, the fractious wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and Laura Rees put in a wry and amusingly ethereal performance as Adriana's sister, Luciana.
There's also a change of gear in the musical department. This season has already given us some haunting music using a rather odd collection of ancient instruments. But here, there's more than a hint of panto in the music from mainly brass, modern instruments, which provide sound effects to every morsel of the knock-about, slapstick comedy.
The last time I saw 'The Comedy of Errors' was back in January - that was the RSC's version at the Novello. That production, like this one at the Globe, sought to milk the humour from the play. But apart from that key objective, one would be hard pressed to find two radically differing productions. In the RSC version, the Dromios looked so similar that it was difficult to tell them apart. Whereas in the Globe's version, it's the Antipholuses who are strikingly, almost unbelievably similar, both vocally as well as in physical appearance, while the Dromios are not quite so perfectly matched.
This version of 'The Comedy of Errors' is a kind of 'tongue-in-cheek' celebration of classic British comedy. Or at least, it affectionately borrows the style of these now dated shows, mixing their influences with some innovation and a certain flair of its own. And the result is great fun!
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Comically trite and superficial." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Although it makes for a jolly, rompy, pseudo-Roman evening, there are depths of wonderment in Shakespeare's play which this production rarely reaches." SAM MARLOWE for THE TIMES says, "WHAT a Carry On! Busty blonde bimbos, scary matriarchs, ineffectual posh twits, camp innuendo and silly slapstick are the limited charms of Christopher Luscombe’s production of Shakespeare’s comedy. " DOMINIC CAVENDISH for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "Ingeniously postmodern account of The Comedy of Errors."
Production photo by John Tramper