I can't recall the last time I saw a production of The Comedy Of Errors costumed in any period other than the 1920s-1940s. There seems to be something about the long-lost Antipholus twins, as they pinball around the city of Ephesus being mistaken for each other and leaving a gathering twister of chaos in their respective wakes, that inherently suggests snappy suits. Not that there's anything wrong with that, and in Ian Brown's first production as associate artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, designer Peter McKintosh integrates such costuming well with his Mediterranean set of whitewashed stone walls and steps. In the background, a tiny ship sails slowly across the horizon, emphasising that the play's action is continuous and more or less in real time.
As a director, Brown is consistently motivated by wanting to give clear service to the play in question, whatever performance style this may require. Here, frenzied comedy alternates with much slower and more deliberate passages, as we are gently prodded to take fully on board first the extensive back-story told by the prisoner Egeon, and later the emotional dilemmas of the sisters Adriana and Luciana: the first driven more to despair than anger by the belief that her husband has fallen out of love with her, the second torn between sisterly loyalty and simple morality on the one hand, and on the other a genuine electricity between her and (as it luckily turns out) the other Antipholus.
So far, so good. Unfortunately, Brown also intends that we miss none of the gags. Now, despite its popularity in terms of productions, this is one of the Shakespearean comedies in which many of the individual jokes have long since perished and deflated. Brown's idea of resuscitating them is to make the manservant Dromio twins jitter non-stop, make incessant gestures to emphasise the frequent bawdy references and intersperse their lines with a variety of barking and farting noises, so that it almost seems as if poor Adam Shaw and James Weaver are afflicted simultaneously by St Vitus' Dance and Tourette's syndrome. It is intensely annoying, and undoes all the good work of the rest of the production. Howard Saddler makes for an amiably bewildered Antipholus of Syracuse, and Sean Francis balances well his Ephesian twin's mix of affability and rage; Lisé Stevenson and Alexandra Lilley fret sincerely (if, in Stevenson's case, a little shrilly) as Adriana and Luciana; Morag Siller is an over-the-top Yank vamp as a courtesan. But through it all run the irksome madcap Dromios. Brown's production has sadly fallen prey to the error of comedy.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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