Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Opened 30 March, 2011

Compared to the increasingly frenetic action which ensues, The Comedy Of Errors has what may be the slowest opening scene in all of Shakespeare. Old Egeon's account of the back-story to these two pairs of identical twins ending up, unbeknownst to each other, in the same city resembles the "Previously..." montage at the top of a TV serial drama episode. However, Andrew Hilton's second production in this year's Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory season keeps the pace sprightly from the word go. This, plus judicious trimming (which also gets rid of the occasional authorial slip), brings the entire saga in at two hours including interval.
Yet matters never feel rushed, except when Dorothea Myer-Bennett's Adriana deliberately gabbles her final petition to the Duke for comic effect. Script editor Dominic Power even finds space to add a few pastiche-period musical numbers sung by the Dromios, the twin manservants. I am unconvinced by Hilton's decision to have these characters play in Received Pronunciation: as with almost all Shakespeare's clown roles, a plebeian twang makes the lines go with more of a zip. But these shaven-headed Dromios are smart lads: as Dromio of Syracuse, Richard Neale turns a series of worn-out gags about baldness into a gentle twitting of his splendidly-coiffed master, Dan Winter.
Hilton is experienced at getting the job done on a shoestring. The Tobacco Factory's in-the-round stage is bare throughout save for the Duke's desk in the opening scene; Harriet de Winton dresses the cast in unshowy Edwardian costumes (the swords, which often look incongruous when a play is relocated in time, are elegant sword-canes); so everything rests on inspired performance interpretations. Nicky Goldie, for instance, makes the Abbess who appears in Act Five to help tie things up a pert, assured woman who stands up to others not just out of religious devotion but because it is her natural way. Angelo, the goldsmith who gives one Antipholus a gold chain and seeks payment from the other, is often little more than a vehicle for dramatically expedient mix-ups, but Alan Coveney makes of him a delightful middle-aged creation in a smoking-cap, complete with a spot of Vic Reeves-style lecherous thigh-rubbing. Hilton and his cast find no new depths or angles, but what they do, they do with efficiency and discreet flair.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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