Comedian Lenny Henry seems to be getting a real taste for Shakespeare. In September 2009 I saw him tackle the onerous role of Othello in which he proved authoritatively convincing. And that performance gained him the Milton Shulman Award for Outstanding Newcomer in the 2009 Evening Standard Awards. Now he is back for another shot at Shakespeare, this time taking on one of the Bard's best-loved comedies and, with his début behind him, one would imagine he is in more confident mood.
Mr Henry, though, is not the most striking thing about this production which is directed by the Royal Court's Artistic Director, Dominic Cooke. Even Mr Henry is dwarfed by Bunny Christie's near-overwhelming set that comprises three massive towers that turn into ships, warehouses, a swanky block of flats, and even multi-storied houses that have people inside them on different levels and engaged in a variety of dubious activities. Though we are pretty used to exceptional sets at the National, this is both wonderfully impressive and incredibly detailed, with a real sense of fun too – numerous stuffed pigeons line the ledges and rooftops of the buildings and a couple of them even make it on to the apron.
Dominic Cooke ingeniously drags the 'Comedy of Errors' into the 21st century, or possibly the late 20th century, with automatic guns in evidence and a helicopter rescue used to illustrate Egeon's story of his family's separation. And the costumes are modern too, with Adriana and her sister sporting shoes which have heels almost as high as the buildings, and the Duke is a kind of Mafia gangster (with a heart), complete with camel-coloured overcoat.
Much of the action takes place in a seedy down-town area which, apart from the goldsmith's shop, includes raunchy bars, pool halls and brothels. At one point, as the action proceeds in the street below, a naked man is strung-up by his hands, apparently waiting some kind of sedo-masochistic 'treatment'. The Abbess resides not in a religious house but a clinic, and even a modern ambulance is pressed into service.
Of course, Lenny Henry finds himself in familiar comic territory and he doesn't disappoint in any department, even if he seems more confident with the comedic elements than the more serious moments. Along with his Dromio (Lucian Msamati) he effects some very amusing hand movements and little dances, and when Mr Henry finally confronts his twin (excellently played by Chris Jarman) they engage in a mirror routine which, though not exactly unique, is nevertheless wholly apt, well-executed and amusing besides. Both Chris Jarman and Lenny Henry are excellently supported by their respective Dromios – Daniel Poyser and Lucian Msamati. And I particularly enjoyed Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as her sister Luciana – two blonde-haired, cocktail-sipping young women shoe-horned into clingy, brash dresses and staggering around on enormous high heels. Finally, among the excellent support, Amit Shah provides a further note of humour as the long-suffering goldsmith, Angelo, when he screams in unexpected exasperation “Where's my money?”.
Dominic Cooke's production is a big, bold, brash version of the 'Comedy of Errors' which essentially combines farce with slapstick. Occasionally, it becomes a little excessive, for example in the scene with the ambulance and medics. Though it never gets to be truly hilarious – there are no big belly-laugh moments as in the National's smash hit 'One Man Two Guvnors' – it is engaging, well-paced and good fun. Additionally, it is worth seeing just to admire the brilliant set.
"The mistaken identity routines and farcical chaos often prove a comic delight."
Charles Spencer for The Telegraph
"This production captures vividly that dreamlike sense of transformation that makes Shakespearean comedy unique."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"As the National’s high-culture yet fun alternative to seasonal Christmas shows, this hits the spot."
Ian Shuttleworth for Financial Times
"Henry beautifully conveys the tragicomic plight of an innocent abroad."
Paul Taylor for The Independent