Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield and touring
Opened 28 January, 2011
*** / ****

Edward Hall’s Propeller company has built a reputation on touring all-male Shakespearean productions, but seldom if ever have I seen two shows paired in repertoire so radically different in tone and approach, at least superficially.
The Comedy Of Errors has the feel of a Ren And Stimpy cartoon: everything is bright, a little misshapen and more than a little dubious. In its Dayglo, shantyish Latin American setting, a mariachi band not only accompanies the action but provides sound effects for punches, smacks and other blows, of which there are many. Even David Newman as the normally demure Luciana wields nunchucks and fortifies her coffee with hooch from a hipflask. Robert Hands as Adriana, normally the more strident and here all shaven head and trashy leopard-print, is also the more affecting when bewailing how her husband Antipholus has turned from her. This is, of course, largely an illusion thanks to the sudden arrival in Ephesus of the long-lost twin brothers of Antipholus and his servant Dromio with, as the saying goes, hilarious consequences.
Shakespeare sticks closely to a Plautine model with this comedy, and Hall focuses on comic business rather than the verbals (although there are one or two nicely turned set-pieces of byplay on that front). Matters are updated when necessary, so that the Elizabethan mad-doctor Pinch becomes a Texan televangelist with a broad Yorkshire accent, whose final appearance is running up the aisle of the theatre stark naked with a lit sparkler sticking out of his arse. And, to be sure, Shakespeare always allowed latitude for scenes involving his companies’ clowns, but the clowning didn’t run through the entire play. When I saw this show on its press day in Sheffield there were even panto-style gags about the city council.
It was also appropriate for a Sheffield performance that Richard Clothier as the Duke of Ephesus should so resemble Glenn Gregory of that city’s 1980s pop stylists Heaven 17. His bottle-blond dye job comes into its own when Clothier portrays Gloucester in Richard III: with leather trenchcoat, callipers and a hand missing, he looks like a senior Nazi carrying his wounds for the Reich. The cartoon violence of the Comedy here becomes far grimmer, on a set that is part-Edwardian field hospital (the supernumeraries of the company are always present, sinisterly faceless in white burn masks, and hospital screens pass across the stage as “wipes” between scenes) and part-abattoir. A variety of implements are brought into play from antique surgery, butchery and woodworking, zooming up to date with a chainsaw. Gloucester walks to his coronation across a path of body-bags, all occupied; earlier, in the contrived scene where the crowd calls on him to take the throne, he is discovered not merely at prayer but mortifying his flesh.
Tony Bell, last seen shaking his sparklered booty as Pinch, here becomes an unbending Margaret of Anjou, cursing Gloucester and others by ritually sprinkling them with her own blood from a surgical bowl; Hands bookends the proceedings as Edward IV and the white-suited good guy Richmond (later Henry VII), and Chris Myles turns from a fishnetted, riding-cropped abbess in Ephesus to Gloucester’s pinstriped, bowlered minion Buckingham. The two little “princes in the Tower” are portrayed by doll-faced rod-puppets.
This is not a Gloucester who entices the audience to connive in his villainies; rather, he permits us to bear witness as he single-mindedly and coldly pursues his aim, building a state in which, as Ben Jonson described the Rome of his play Sejanus, “all hope is crime”. Both Hall’s productions here dwell not on central performances but a gratuitously vicious world.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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