National Theatre (Olivier), London SE1
Opened 29 November, 2011
Shakespeare really knew how to write comical confusion. Even the most jaded of us, who think we know his comedies backwards, still get caught out every so often. Witness the National Theatre, whose programme for this tale of the two-separated-in-infancy sets of twins crossing and re-crossing each other’s paths accidentally lists the character of Adriana as being married to the wrong Antipholus. Luckily, the NT spotted the mistake in time to print an erratum slip; but it is unsolicited testimony that this stuff still truly works.
Royal Court artistic director Dominic Cooke’s first production at the National begins by looking worryingly modish, with Bunny Christie’s set of tenement exteriors, walkways and fire escapes doubling as ships’ rigging during Act One’s “the story so far” sequence. However, the settings change several times through the shortish evening (less than “an hour each way”) to give a real sense that this is a city comedy of the kind more associated with the likes of Ben Jonson than Shakespeare. The reason the two Antipholi and their servants the Dromios get so repeatedly mistaken for each other is that they are all part of the urban bustle of Ephesus. This city can throw up in supporting roles a quack doctor, an increasingly hysterical goldsmith and, to cap it all, a band who punctuate the proceedings by singing in an indecipherable language Mediterranean, Mano Negra-style versions of assorted songs about mental upset: “Madness”, “People Are Strange” and even “Paranoid” are amongst their repertoire.
Lenny Henry, having made a creditable Shakespeare début a couple of years ago as Othello, is on more familiar territory as Antipholus of Syracuse, the newcomer to the city. Henry makes full use of his rich vocabulary of facial expressions of rage, perplexity and all kinds of uneasiness, as well as being energetic in his character’s physical outbursts: on press night, a drinks tray bounced off Dromio’s head to land in the audience. Chris Jarman as Antipholus of Ephesus is more temperate, but finds a suggestion of brotherhood in this brother’s behaviour when vexed. Cooke distinguishes between the Antipholi and the Dromios (the latter played by Daniel Poyser and an unrecognisable Lucian Msamati) by giving the Syracusans West African accents and the Ephesians an estuarial twang, which makes proceedings easier to follow but begs the question of why others don’t spot these repeated changes of accent. Michelle Terry is a delight as ever as Luciana, but is for once pipped by Claudie Blakley as her sister Adriana, wife to A of E; Blakley portrays wifely love and concern without short-changing the comedy. And everything ends happily thanks to, not the Abbess this time, but the therapist-in-chief of the Abbey Clinic, “where [according to the brass plaque by its front door] talking cures”. As the National’s high-culture yet fun alternative to seasonal Christmas shows, this hits the spot.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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