When Lynne Parker's production of The Comedy Of Errors opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford in April, Alastair Macaulay in the Financial Times was rather the ghost at the feast, arguing that Parker had jam-packed an evening with gags and gimmicks which service the word "Comedy" in the title but do little for the play. True, this is a long way from the last RSC production – Tim Supple's thoughtful, even sombre touring version in 1996 – but if anything it's a tad muted compared to the play's last London main-house outing in '92. The bottom line (of the opening paragraph, at least) is that it is a damn good laugh.
As Antipholus of Syracuse and his manservant Dromio find themselves abroad in an Ephesus where everyone seems to know them (because their respective long-lost twin brothers have lived in the city for twenty years), any musings on selfhood and individuality are very much subordinated by Shakespeare himself to the Plautine comic plot and language which still shows the flash of a tyro playwright. It is principally a gagfest, and Parker treats it as such, with visual references ranging from Harold Lloyd to Eisenstein by way of The Seven Year Itch, the Village People and variety-hall sand-dancers Wilson, Keppel and Betty.
Yet I genuinely don't believe that these numerous injections of fizz overbalance or disrespect the play; they are swift, small gags which allow the natural frenzy of Shakespeare's tale to continue to build at its own pace. Nor is the darker side of things ignored: it is not just the opening scene or the (admittedly misjudged) treatment of the awkward Dr Pinch episode in a subterranean prison, but the recurring tangential motifs of wells, grilles and gratings also keep discreetly reminding us that there is more going on beneath the confusions and chases – beneath them in several senses.
David Tennant as Antipholous of Syracuse shows himself much more delightfully attuned to broad comedy here and in the concurrent production of The Rivals than to the romantic angst of Romeo elsewhere in the season, and quite eclipses his surlier Ephesian brother played by Anthony Howell. Ian Hughes and Tom Smith play their respective Dromios as more assured than the usual run of put-upon manservants. Emily Raymond and Jacqueline Defferary provide efficient support as A. of E.'s wife Adriana and her quasi-adulterously tempted sister Luciana; Nina Conti does a brief turn as a sword-swallowing courtesan (and a Freudian would have something to say about that), and Jack Chissick as First Merchant is encouraged to steal every scene that isn't nailed down. It's not an evening for chin-stroking; it's a brisk two-and-a-quarter-hour romp, and none the worse for it.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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