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March 01, 2012

The Comedy of Errors (NT Live) @ The Broadway, Nottingham

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The NT Live juggernaut rolls on. Now well-established as a theatrical/cinematic event, it was a pleasure to see the enormous Screen 1 of Nottingham's Broadway cinema packed out with a lively audience for the latest offering, a broadcast of Dominic Cooke's hugely successful The Comedy of Errors, which I missed in London. Even more of a pleasure was the realisation that NT Live has finally (apparently) realised that the extensive framing that I've complained about in previous offerings is unnecessary. A quick three minute interview preceded the show, with Cooke explaining the rationale behind this Errors in relation to previous productions - that instead of examining the experience of men arriving on a foreign shore, this production was set in an Ephesus recognisable as modern London, allowing the production to reflect on how "we" view new arrivals on "our" shores.

I've never seen an Errors that has fallen flat onstage, and this was no exception. Cooke's production was busy, lively, musical and energetic, reducing both its live and distance audiences to tears. Not everything was entirely successful in the cinema: the difficulty of watching a production staged in such an enormous theatre is that the projected voices were too shouty for cinema speakers, and much of the slapstick that clearly worked on stage played too broadly in close-up on a big screen. It's an unavoidable dilemma, but points to some of the drawbacks of the live broadcast.

The contemporary setting aimed to expose something of London's seedier underbelly. Egeon was dragged on at gunpoint for the play's opening with a bag over his head, while Solinus, a suited gangster, clicked his fingers at his lackeys. Later, the Syracusian twins found themselves in a red light district with prostitutes, gimps and transvestites, culminating in a red-lit sequence where the locals became grotesque and began mauling the two horrified visitors. The busy revolving stage of the National ensured an ever-changing series of locales - the pool bar in which Adriana confronted the Syracusian Antipholus, the modern apartment building where Adriana and Luciana lounged on a balcony sipping afternoon martinis, the cafe bar where the newly-arrived twins had their first "disagreement".

Particularly fascinating was the way in which these fully-realised locations forced a sense of spectatorship and disruption. Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati as the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio had thick West African accents that differentiated them from the identically dressed, but thoroughly London-based, Ephesian twins; and their newness was marked in behavioural as well as aural terms. S.Antipholus had a disconcertingly violent approach to his servant - poking him in the eye, beating him over the head with trays and kicking him hard in the backside, behaviour which was reacted to with shock in their initial fight, as cafe customers scarpered to get out of their way. In the pool room, on the other hand, other patrons stood around wolf-whistling and catcalling as Adriana prowled the room, castigaging Antipholus for his behaviour towards her. In this version of London, easy entertainment was found in foreigners being loud and ridiculous.

The foreignness of the Syracusian twins was not unproblematic, however. In particular, Henry’s thick accent, squeaks of indignation and quizzical moans turned him, at times, into a caricature of the “funny foreigner”. When he and Dromio identified the Ephesians as witches, they began clicking their fingers and crossing themselves in a panicked superstitious ritual, which provoked laughter from both the onstage and offstage audiences. While part of the production’s point was clearly to highlight problems of spectatorship and our enjoyment of the incongruous other, there was also something uncritical and disquieting about sitting in an all-white audience that was laughing hysterically at two caricatures of superstitious Africans stranded in the city. For a production that appeared at times to want to confront issues of racism and cultural conflict, there was to my mind too much reliance on easy cultural stereotyping and not enough reflection to reinforce a critique.

The encounter between the new arrivals and a multicultural city was interesting, however. Chris Jarman’s Ephesian Antipholus and Daniel Poyser’s Dromio had fully acclimatised and become successful, but still laughter was drawn as Antipholus was referred to as “pale”. A mix of Indian goldsmiths, Italian gangsters and Romanian musicians roamed the streets, the musicians playing wonderful folksy covers of songs touching on madness: Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Tears for Fears’ Mad World. This chaotic, colourful world fleshed out the scene changes and wordless sequences, including a spectacular revolve scene as both sets of twins were chased through the streets by Pinch and his white-coated minions, while the scene shifted around them.

The highlights of the show, however, were the tremendous performances by Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as Luciana. Drawing on the WAG stereotype, both women wore improbably high heels (Adriana drawing an audible gasp as she managed to stand upright on top of a pool table), clinging dresses and a permanently disaffected air. Their London drawl, alternately pleading and sarcastic, kept the characters on the knife edge of parody, particularly as Terry allowed every syllable to hang as she hesitantly dealt with Antipholus’s wooing. The sense of entitlement and bitchiness that united and divided the pair was realised in simple hair tosses and shrugs, and Adriana in particular relied throughout on a combination of aggressive sexuality and indignant rage. In her first encounter with Antipholus she choreographed an entire vignette for herself, striding around the pool room, manoeuvring across the tables, clinging to Antipholus’s leg and more. As the Ephesian twins knocked to get into their house, we saw the two emerge for a post-coital cigarette on the top balcony of her apartment.

Not all of the humour worked well. The choice to play the ‘porter’ scene through a doorbell and intercom rendered the scene static, and a running gag with Luce appearing on the balcony just as the others were out of view went on for too long. The reduction of the scene to an exchange of farting showed a production that had, at this point, run out of ideas. The Luce set-piece speeches for the Syracusian Dromio were also more muted than I’ve seen elsewhere, despite Msamati’s impeccable comic timing in his final mention of her. Interestingly, where the final confusions before the revelation of the twins’ identity is usually played as the climax of the noise and chaos, Jarman delivered his final defence to Solinus in a serious vein, preparing us for the more sober tone of the conclusion rather than allowing for the usual sudden turn.

The production’s interest in the serious nature of the play was most evident in Joseph Mydell’s Aegeon and Pamela Nomvete’s Aemilia. Mydell’s initial recounting of his history was not helped by an overly fussy and confusing (for a cinema audience who saw only fragments of it) full-scale depiction of the wreck and separation behind the characters; but Mydell’s sober, sad Aegeon provided a point of gravity for the play, and the final scene lingered on the tender embrace between reunited husband and wife, far beyond the point of dramatic pace, in order to entirely readjust the tone – a moment repeated shortly after with the two Antipholi. Similarly, the closing scene allowed the camera to linger on the Ephesian Dromio’s proffered hand, occasioning audience sympathy as the two took hands and left the stage together.

Errors, despite its reputation, is actually an excellent play, and Cook’s production did it full justice. The immigration angle genuinely offered a new insight into the play’s imagining of dislocation and cross-cultural encounter and, while some of the humour occasioned by this was unnecessarily reductive, the production did successfully depict the implicit prejudices and assumptions that inevitably dog a multicultural society. With a combination of bravura set-pieces, entertaining performances and fantastic music, the play proved itself once again one of the strongest Shakespearean vehicles for invention and amusement.

March 31, 2011

The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory) @ The Tobacco Factory

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The Comedy of Errors is one of those few plays that fail to disappoint onstage. It's inherently funny, fast, short and complex, and it's hard to remove the basic entertainment value from it. However, the slew of Comedies I've seen over the last few years have shared what is, perhaps, a surprising feature - they've been extremely cruel. From the knockabout farce and chaos of Nancy Meckler's RSC production, to the abbreviated insanity of the Young Person's production, to the clowning of the Welsh School of Drama's version and, finally, the brutal slapstick of Propeller's recent triumph, performances have been marked by a speed and reactionary physicality that, while often illuminating, have perhaps tipped the production too far away from its potential for other readings. Specifically, these Errors' have lacked heart.

Andrew Hilton's new production for the Tobacco Factory redressed the balance considerably. Drawing apparent inspiration from Greg Doran's recent Twelfth Night at the RSC, the production was set in the rough geographical location of the play (Ephesus = Turkey and the immediate Mediterranean surrounds) around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. Locals such as Balthasar and Angelo wore fezes, while the colonial English wore regency dresses or waistcoat/jacket combinations. A violin and piano underscored scene changes marked by fades to black; women sat quietly reading; Ephesus itself was marked by an air of colonial civility and etiquette. It was a far cry from the mad farce that has come to mark productions of this play, instead creating a measured, elegiac atmosphere in which the characters were much more than caricatures, and the levels of farce in the play were differentiated rather than sustained at a single high pitch.

The production started perhaps too slowly, with mournful violin announcing the lights rising on a court scene. David Collins's bedraggled and passive Egeon sat centrally before Paul Currier's beurocratic Duke, while a secretary took notes. The Duke's busy indifference balanced Egeon's despair ideally, but left the character looking rather insignificant. His long tale, delivered as much to the audience surrounding the stage on four sides as to the Duke, was unfortunately dull, an expository sequence that carried little of the stated emotional impact. Egeon's own lack of self-interest fed too far into the delivery, and even the Duke's response spoke more of an awakening of interest rather than anything more powerful.

It took the company a long time to step up the pace from this dour opening. The Syracusians arrived straight from their boat, carrying suitcases and wearing long coats while Dromio (Richard Neale) sang sadly over the music. The establishment of atmosphere was effective, introducing the characters as civilised and generally polite. Dan Winter's Antipholus took time to sit and listen in amusement to his servant's jokes, while Dromio kept up a gentle, reverent patter that kept within the limits of their established relationship.

The first few lines of 3.1 were brought forward so that the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio (Matthew Thomas and Gareth Kennerley) first entered with Angelo and Balthasar immediately after their Syracusian counterparts had left the stage for the first time, bringing out earlier the connections between the two sets of twins. There was a remarkable likeness between the siblings (the Antipholi were tall and wore dark beards; the Dromios were clean-shaven and bald, and a little shorter than their masters) who were only differentiated by slightly different shadings in their clothes, meaning that each appearance of a character was momentarily unsettling for the audience in the best possible way as they tried to work out who they were seeing. They were also surprisingly similar in character: the two Dromios were both plaintive complainers, easily upset by being struck but also prompt to forgive, delivering their jokes as wistful banter. The Antipholi were more clearly defined, though gradually grew more alike: Antipholus of Ephesus was more moody, oscillating between drunken shouting and a depressed attitude; and his more positive brother strode about the stage, interacting happily with people but becoming increasingly unsure as events conspired against him.

As the mistaken identities began to impact, the relationships began to slowly break down. The Dromios became more and more manic, running on and off stage and pre-emptively forestalling criticism by desperately blurting out their information and apologies. Meanwhile, each Antipholus grew more angry. In a neat piece of staging, Antipholus of Syracuse cuffed both Dromios round the ear in the exact same area of the stage in the early scenes, but with the second hit harder than the first, making explicit the shared confusion of the two Dromios and the growing ire of Antipholus. The relative calmness of the production made the violence more startling by contrast: later, Antipholus of Ephesus took the rope given to him by his Dromio, tied a knot in it and began mercilessly flogging the hapless servant, to winces from the audience.

The catalyst in the ongoing elevation of hysteria was Dorothea Myer-Bennett's superlative Adriana. Even in her initial scene, sitting with a book in a high-backed chair while her bookish sister (Ffion Jolly) studied happily, she was chafing and shuffling, finally bursting out into frustration against her absent husband. Luciana's role throughout was to attempt to restrain Adriana's outbursts, but this meek, bespectacled girl had little sway over the far more formidable Adriana, who was barely restrained from punching the Ephesian Dromio in anger. She put on a hat and went out to seek Antipholus herself, and brooked no argument from the confused Syracusian whom she encountered, who obediently followed her home. However, an interpolated sequence saw the lights come up on Adriana, sitting and weeping, while an abashed Antipholus looked apologetically towards her; the implication was that he had refused her advances, and his professed affection for the shocked Luciana in the following scene made this clear. From this point on, Adriana's behaviour was increasingly erratic, culminating in a breathless monologue delivered at high speed to a shocked Duke outside the nunnery which earned her a spontaneous round of applause.

The manners and sensibilities of the main cast were thus established and slowly broken down to great comic effect. Local colour was provided by Kate Kordel's lively and wilful Courtesan, who flirted aggressively with Antipholus of Ephesus and, later, became firm over the point of her money and ring, flouncing and harumphing about the stage and exchanging slyly competitive glances with Adriana during their united assault on Antipholus. Alan Coveney's Angelo was another high point, a weasel of a man with a fez, moustache and glasses. Intrusively jovial, he jabbed both Antipholi in the ribs repeatedly and ingratiated himself with his fellow merchants and workmen; yet when "wronged", betrayed a high-minded sensibility that insisted on being made reparation. One of the standout comedy sequences was the simple debate between he and Antipholus over which of them had the chain, a masterclass of mutual chagrin, rising annoyance and, finally, petty recrimination. Angelo's abashed apologies as his mistakes became clear in the final scene were similarly entertaining.

Only in the doorknocking scene did a metatheatrical comic awareness influence the action. The two Dromios stood at either end of the space, with the empty square of the Tobacco Factory stage deliberately extending the thickness of the door; yet as the Syracusian Dromio spat at the Ephesian Dromio under the door, there was a time delay to the reaction as if the spittle had had to travel the several metres distance. Similarly, both Dromio and Antipholus knocked on thin air, accompanied by sound effects created by one of the other actors; but this culminated in the sound effect deliberately going beyond the number of mimed knocks, causing the actors to pause and look around in confusion. Elsewhere, however, the comedy was reliant on people acting in believable but amusing ways: Antipholus and his friends, for example, sang drunkenly in comically hushed voices before the former's door, evoking a fun sense of manly camaraderie. Dromio's description of Nell was a highlight, using arms and a foreboding voice to illustrate her girth and the terror he felt, which was suitably recaptured in subsequent references to her. Dr. Pinch, meanwhile, was a young man in a waistcoat and tails with a motley crew of assistants bearing straitjackets, into which they forced Antipholus. By this time, the Ephesian Antipholus's patience was at an end, and he broke off flogging Dromio in order to pinch Pinch hard by the ear. His furious rant to the Duke earned a second smattering of applause, the character's instability reaching its peak as he knelt to his lord.

The always-reliable final scene saw characters shrieking, complaining and generally behaving awfully as the multiple plots came together, over which Nicky Goldie's formidable Abbess took control, ordering the reunions and provoking laughs as she revealed the final twist of being Egeon's wife. There was a great deal of innocent comedy found in the reunions - Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, hugged his brother and sister-in-law with an enthusiasm that his brother didn't quite share; and there was an almost tender moment as Antipholus of Ephesus finally paid the Courtesan for his entertainment, to Adriana's glare. The two Dromios taking hands, however, provided a fittingly sweet conclusion to a lovely production that didn't rock the boat or offer exciting new readings of Errors, but did restore some dignity to a play too often treated as straightforward farce, taking as its purpose the exploration of the reactions of real people to inexplicable events.

February 10, 2011

The Comedy of Errors (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

A roar of dissent rose in the foyer of the Belgrade Theatre during the interval of last night's Comedy of Errors, as the tannoy politely requested that audience members resume their seats for the second half. The roar came, however, not from reluctant audiences, but from the theatre company themselves. The men of Propeller had followed the audience out into the foyer and begun an impromptu charity concert with Mexican/Latin-inflected versions of Material Girl, Billie Jean and other '80's standards. With the audience singing and clapping along, the company were reluctant to end the party, and Chris Myles cried "They can't start while we're out here!" The second half eventually started some fifteen minutes late.

Much has been written on the idea of ensemble in contemporary Shakespearean theatre, but few companies embody the spirit of ensemble theatre-making to the extent that Propeller does. As the wonderful interval concert proved, this was a group of individuals who the audience wanted to spend time with, and whose shared creativity and enthusiasm informed every aspect of their performed presence - many faces were familiar from the last few years of the company's history. Writing and performing the music as a company, setting up each other's jokes and set-pieces and displaying a physical comfort and familiarity with each other's bodies that allowed for precise, hysterical comedy, Comedy allowed the true strengths of ensemble to be fully-realised.

Despite the pre-show melee of actors strolling through the audience in sombreros and football shirts (creating an extremely loose eighties central American setting), Edward Hall's production began bravely with a sober, visually-sparse introductory scene. Richard Clothier's Duke, wearing a red sequinned suit and carrying a pistol as the local private authority (with the police in his pay), escorted John Dougall's chained and bedraggled Aegeon onto the darkened stage. Dougall delivered his account of his past sorrows with no visual aids, articulating his woes clearly with simple vocal expression, captivating both his onstage and offstage audiences. The only exception was the appearance of the Antipholi and Dromios at an above window, waving as their names were mentioned. The decision to restrain the company's naturally visual and physical storytelling made a clear statement - that despite the ensuing chaos, this was a production rooted firmly in text and clarity.

While the two hours of performance gradually descended into an increasingly chaotic melange of images, noises and words, this was no chaotic farce. The multiple sensory inputs were drawn directly from text with the purpose of clarifying the wit of the text; but then these devices developed their own meta-language and became a source of humour in their own right. Thus, when the subplot of the chain was first introduced, a member of the onstage band (formed from whichever actors were not directly involved in the scene) tapped a xylophone. This gave an audible anchor to the convoluted discussions of the chain's circulation that clarified sense. As the mentions of the chain repeated exponentially in frequency, however, the repeated sounding of the xylophone took on its own comedic associations, a frenetic pointer to a comic verbal motif. Eventually, the ringing became so much a part of the text that Antipholus of Ephesus (Sam Swainsbury), in his final chaotic attempts to explain the day's events to the Duke, screamed "DING!" every time he said "chain". The extra-textual pointer became its own textual joke. Similarly, a duck call accompanied the loping steps of Dominic Tighe's Italian officer, speeding up or slowing down according to the pace of Tighe's stride. Rather than throw in cheap laughs, the company built up an intermediate level of performative language, doubling the effect of the text.

As such, the work that the actors did was, from the start, self-consciously theatrical. Characters did not relate to one another as "real" characters, but instead performed their speeches as set-pieces which were interwoven into the performative text rather than the plot, focussing on plateau rather than locus (to use Robert Weimann's terms). This was entirely appropriate to a play in which so much of the dialogue consists of attempts to explain actions that have previously taken place. Speeches were delivered quickly, but articulated with a fast series of accompanying gestures that physicalised the reported action, and often blurred into the action of the moment; thus, both Dromios relieved their beatings, and in doing so went through the motions of being beaten again. Again, the doubling of action was entirely appropriate to a play that foregrounds the process of doubling so prominently.

This had two effects. Firstly, the wit of Comedy of Errors itself came out strongly - rather than use the physical action as a substitute for the comedic effect of the words, action here enhanced Shakespeare's jokes and metaphors. This was most apparent in Richard Frame's phenomenal delivery of  the Nell dialogue. The Syracusian twins stepped forward, out of the "reality" of their scene, and Frame used his body and the stage to create a vivid image of the gargantuan kitchen wench: he walked from wing to wing to illustrate her girth; he extended his arms and rotated them for her height and width, then gazed wide-eyed at the sphere he had just traced in the air; and he performed the effects of her breath, boils and eyes, creating an horrific imagined space which she inhabited. All later references to her gained in impact from this impressive establishing vignette, both Dromio and audience shuddering at the memory of Nell.

The second effect was to licence an extraordinary level of comic violence that became a commentary upon itself. Accompanied by its amusing score of cues, actors poked one another in the eye, kicked each other's backsides and slapped one another viciously. Within this cartoonish aesthetic, however, the company were able to push the violence to extremes which caused the audience to quail: David Newman's Luciana, a frump in pince-nez spectacles, frilly skirt and handbag, displayed a growing range of martial arts skills that culminated in the revelation of a pair of nunchucks, but more effective was the violence practiced on Jon Trenchard's diminutive Dromio of Ephesus. A cry went up from the audience as he was struck hard with a crowbar by his master, throwing the violence into perspective. Even more impressively, at one point the action froze as Antipholus prepared to floor him with a particularly hideous blow. Trenchard came forward and began his "I am an ass indeed" speech as a soliloquy to the audience. Sobbing, and to the accompaniment of a violin, he elicited sympathetic moans from the audience, before trudging back into position with wistful glances back at the auditorium. Steeling himself, he closed his eyes, and the action resumed with him being thrown onto his back. By establishing a point of sympathy, the production found its heart. The closing moments between the two Dromios were genuinely affecting, as Dromio of Ephesus reached out to his brother and took his hand, no longer alone in his victimisation. The point was not heavy-handed, but cut through the physical farce to make a plea for human feeling.

The other moment of extraordinary brilliance was the presentation of Dr. Pinch by Tony Bell. When announced, the rumble of a Hammond organ was heard, and smoke billowed from the upstage entrance. A silhouette appeared in the smoke, which then turned into the hacking figure of a bluff Yorkshireman in sharp suit and wearing a large cross. This Pinch, the conjurer, was a TV evangelist - he 'zapped' the Ephesians, who began praising the lord, and a choir of men with angel's wings followed him in. Bell performed an entire song and dance routine, breaking up his words with requests for donations, the exorcism of an audience member and the stripping-down of himself to vest and trousers. Robert Hands, as Adriana, threw herself on her knees before him, entering her credit card details into a handy machine as she pleaded for him to exorcise her husband. In return, Antipholus stood unmoved as Pinch attempted to zap him, before appropriating Pinch's performance for himself and zapping him in return before fleeing the stage.

Bell's use of local references further served to endear him to the audience, referring to Lady Godiva and the local shopping centre. Even more funnily, an entire routine was built in riffing on the Coventry woman who last year put a cat into a wheelie bin - to arrest Dromio and Antipholus, two wheelie bins were brought in and the "madmen" were placed in them, emitting pitiful miaows as they disappeared from view. Bell's comic performance - which he undercut himself with muttered "buggers" as he fumbled over his lines - was topped with a final appearance following the escape of his prisoners - he emerged fully naked and ran through the auditorium, a burning sparkler clenched between his buttocks. The audience barely recovered, and the subsequent appearance of Chris Myles's Aemilia in nun's habit, fishnet stockings, high heels didn't help. Brandishing a riding crop as she talked of the necessity of more disciplined punishment, she dramaturgically served as the climax of the insanity, the rest of the cast falling at her feet as the doors of her nunnery flew open.

The women posed a different set of problems which I don't have the space to explore here; but essentially, their overt sexualisation acted to reinforce male fantasies of (alternately) dominance and hen-pecking, but in a parodic format designed to critique those generalisations. Kelsey Brookfield's Courtesan sashayed onstage in black PVC and bunny ears, before dropping his voice to a husky "Alright?" Luciana, as already mentioned, gradually unveiled a terrifying violence that saw the men fleeing from her, and Hands's Adriana was a sublime blend of feminine chagrin and tempestuous shrew - by the end of the play, she was reduced to pounding on the floor and screaming for justice. Her complete lack of humour allowed her to serve as the foil for the comedy, stereotyping her in the sitcom-lite role of the nagging wife, while allowing Hands to mine the possibilities of that type for full comic effect.

Amid the violence, the spittle (all the Ephesians spat at the mention of Syracuse, and in one scene communally did so on the head of the diminutive Wayne Cater as Balthasar), the fast talking and the frenetic action, this was a production with heart. The sobriety of Aegeon's plight, the gentle pleas of Dromio of Ephesus, the serenading of a girl in the front row by the Officer, Luciana's instinctive presentation of her hand to Antipholus of Syracuse (she clearly never having been given this kind of attention before) all emerged from the familial warmth of the ensemble. The cruelty and crudity of the broader humour threw these moments into relief, making a case for calm and human feeling amid a flurry of panicked action. It was a perfect marriage of play and company, and a new high standard for Propeller's work.

July 28, 2010

The Comedy of Errors @ Shakespeare's Globe

That'll teach me to let the weather affect my theatre-going. I was booked in to see the Globe's touring production of Comedy of Errors at Coventry Cathedral on Monday night, but after a very poor work day and with the weather looking extremely gloomy, I decided to pass on my tickets. The plan was, instead, to catch it this (Wednesday) afternoon.

Just called Coventry Cathedral to find that the matinee today has been cancelled owing to lack of ticket sales, and I can't make it this evening. Thus, my only Shakespeare for July passes unseen and unreviewed. Sorry, Globe.

July 12, 2009

The Comedy of Errors (RSC Young People's Shakespeare) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Since the launch of the "Stand Up For Shakespeare" manifesto a couple of years ago, the RSC has been remarkably tenacious in promoting its educational work alongside its core productions. While always an important part of the company's remit, the Education Department has recently stepped confidently into the limelight, with events such as the Regional Schools' Celebration sharing the main stage and being opened up to the general public.

The Comedy of Errors acted as the next logical step in raising the Education Department's profile, representing the most sustained collaboration yet between the Education and Production teams. Cross-cast with the main house production of As You Like It, Errors was designed specifically as a first-time introduction to Shakespeare, designed for children and primarily touring local schools. By granting it a few performances on the Courtyard stage as well, however, the company acknowledged the status of this production - this wasn't a fringe production, but an important part of the RSC's current work - and was rewarded with the wonderful sight of a Courtyard theatre packed out with families and children.

The involvement of Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot served to help liberate the production from any traces of the RSC 'house style', and the cast in particular seemed to particularly relish the freedom to let their hair down. Christine Entwistle set the tone early on during Egeon's story: spraying the audience with water, adlibbing commentary on the action and joining in the dumbshow of the shipwreck as a cacklingly evil rock, Entwistle seemed intent on having as good a time as possible, and her infectious enthusiasm was shared by the rest of the cast. From Sophie Russell's tap-dancing Abbess to James Tucker playing the spoons, the right to be ridiculous was fully embraced in a chaotic mish-mash of ideas and jokes.

The small-scale set consisted of a single raised platform in the centre of the main stage, and some fairy lights draped from posts. Most of the ensemble stayed on stage throughout providing live musical accompaniment, giving the production a home-made, informal feel. Iain Johnstone's music was one of the production's main strengths; played on a variety of jazz and improvised instruments (the play opened with one of the Dromios using a toast rack as percussion), the cast provided both underscore and some big musical numbers, including the showstopping "The Man is Mad", sung by the Courtesan with a backing chorus of finger-clicking, shades-wearing crooners.

The opening scene was treated with a little more seriousness, David Carr's Egeon a suitably sober figure as he explained himself to James Traherne's Solinus. Even here, though, the prisoner was kept in a fridge and a hooded executioner asked Egeon to hold the axe while he grabbed a beer. Aware, perhaps, that the dual mistaken-identity plot is confusing enough for adults to follow, let alone a young audience, an accompanying dumbshow was played out in detail, dramatising the birth of both sets of twins and their later shipwreck. Gary Owen's edited text was notably efficient here, keeping only what was necessary in order to establish the characters and their separation, while simultaneously going all out for slapstick laughs.

The exposition out of the way, the chaos of the main action began. Owen's script was mostly Shakespearean, but with a good deal of freedom for adlibbing allowed. Thus James Tucker's Antipholus of Ephesus, entering with Balthazar and Angelo, chatted about his spoon collection and decided that the people sitting around in the Courtyard must be involved in some kind of protest, and Jonjo O'Neill's Dromio of Syracuse, when sent to Adriana for money, announced he was looking for the house with the see-through walls before turning to see Adriana and Luciana on the other side of the stage. This informal, self-aware approach was effective throughout in keeping the audience engaged as the play grew increasingly bizarre; whenever the play was in danger of becoming too weird, the cast simply referred back to the audience. The largest round of applause was reserved for a young boy drawn out of the audience as Dromio fled the hideous Nell; dressing the boy in his hat and jacket, Dromio placed him on stage to distract Nell while he made a quick getaway.

While the children in the audience laughed loudest at the physical comedy, including plenty of gratuitous water-squirting, the adults enjoyed the numerous parodies, from Nell's screams of "Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?" to Traherne's moustachioed French inspector modelled on Poirot, from Luciana's obsession with Eastenders to a slow-motion gunfight (without guns!) as the Syracusan twins escaped into Emilia's abbey. At times there were almost too many jokes crammed in, with good lines being lost in the hysterical reaction to the previous incident. However, this was a committedly visual and physical production; the jokes were secondary to the slapstick comedy and inventive set pieces. One ingenious sequence, as the citizens explained the action of the previous five acts to Solinus, saw the entire play re-enacted as a puppet show with kitchen utensils; a simple argument between Antipholus and Angelo over the chain saw their increasingly exaggerated movements develop into a dance-off; and another argument between the Syracusan twins turned into a mimed tennis match, with another cast member providing voice-over umpire judgments.

The hilarity occasionally overwhelmed the narrative, though the adaptation did an effective job of keeping the play roughly on track. The trope of mistaken identity was memorably established early on: Antipholus of Ephesus revelled with the citizens, entertaining them with his magnificent spoon-playing, before leaving to their disappointment. As he left the stage, Antipholus of Syracuse entered at the other side. After a quick double-take, the citizens' frowns turned to cheers and they threw the spoons to the newcomer to continue their party. Antipholus, however, cheerfully thanked them for the present and popped them in his pocket, provoking a sulky response from his 'friends'. Vignettes like this ensured that the fundamentals of the plot were kept alive in the audience's minds, allowing the production to continue down its own chaotic path.

The venue itself wasn't always kind to the production. One scene called for the cast to chase each other around the auditorium, Keystone Cops-style, but the scale of the theatre and the barriers behind the seating meant that they actually disappeared out of view instead, leaving the stage bare instead of full of energy. Despite the fact that a production designed for school halls was being performed in a 1000-seat theatre, however, the cast did a stirling job of creating an intimate environment, directly engaging with their audience at every opportunity.

To attempt to give more of a sense of the play's humour would be to do it a disservice, for this was an intensely alive piece of theatre, richly detailed and relentlessly energetic. The performances were uniformly outstanding: generous, inventive, good-humoured and entirely shameless, in the best possible sense. If I had a complaint, it would have been that neither play nor production allowed for a great deal of depth beyond the simple entertainment value. As a family show, it was absolutely perfectly-pitched; as an education piece for taking into schools, it didn't seem to offer much of an opening for discussion or further exploration. However, as a first introduction to Shakespeare, it perfectly managed the task of demonstrating that the plays are there to be enjoyed by all ages and abilities, and in that sense this Errors was a resounding success.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

March 25, 2007

Before the Bardathon

As we enter the final week of my year-long project, I’m going to be posting a few retrospective entries in addition to the final couple of reviews. First up, I thought for interest I’d mention my PREVIOUS Shakespeare theatre-going.

I haven’t been attending the theatre as long as many people think. Being a Northerner born-and-bred, and not having a lot of money at that, my theatregoing ability was severely restricted until I started university five and a half years ago. Even since then, it’s only been a couple of years since I really discovered Stratford and started going regularly, and my experience of Shakespearean performance in London is also somewhat limited. What I HAVE done, however, is read and study performance history extensively, which has helped me catch up in no small part on the productions I’ve missed. In addition, I’ve watched pretty much every screen production I can get my hands on.

So, before the Complete Works, what have I seen? A good few productions still, though my memory of them fails in several places. For interest, then, here’s what I have seen:

AS YOU LIKE IT (RSC 2005, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Aside from a big tree, a very VERY dull production of ‘As You Like It’ by Dominic Cooke. Some nice moments, but from the Circle the production died a slow and painful death in the second act, which was far longer than the first, and simple wasn’t funny apart from Paul Chahidi’s Touchstone.

THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (RSC 2005, dir. Nancy Meckler, at the RST)

Hysterical and highly acclaimed, as well as introducing me to the talents of Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger as the Dromios. Fast, funny and exactly how an ‘Errors’ should be.

HAMLET (RSC 2004, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I don’t remember much of this, apart from a few single moments. I do remember, however, Toby Stephens’ Hamlet being pretty damned good!

HENRY V (WUDS 2002 at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

A student production- very low budget, but lively and, particularly in the memorable scenes involving the four soldiers of different nationalities, quite funny too. An all-female cast was the main innovation.

KING JOHN (RSC 2001, dir. Gregory Doran, at the Swan)

Memorable mostly for a spectacular fall from the upper balcony for Arthur, and for the spectacular use of flags and symbols. Generally a very good production, though I enjoyed the 2006 production better.

JULIUS CAESAR (WUDS 2002/3? at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Notable for being the last (I believe) non-musical student production to be staged in the main theatre at Warwick Arts Centre. Solid performances all round, a good use of stage space and innovative use of hand-held cameras for the war scenes made this a very interesting production.

MACBETH (Theatre Babel 2002?, at Warwick Arts Centre Theatre)

Not the greatest ‘Macbeth’, but a fantastic set of dangling swords that descended to ground level and were a constant reminder of the ever-present threat.

MACBETH (RSC 2004, dir. Dominic Cooke, at the RST)

Bizarrely, all I can remember of this production is the England scene, particularly Clive Wood’s Macduff. I seem to remember enjoying it, however.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC 2005, dir. Gregory Doran, at the RST)

Truly magical, and only bettered by Tim Supple’s Indian ‘Dream’. Spectacular use of scenery, puppets and physical movement made this a true joy to watch, along with Malcolm Storry’s excellent Bottom and yet another hysterical performance by Paul Chahidi as Quince. The ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ will remain with me forever.

A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (RSC, 2006, at Warwick Arts Centre)

I can’t find anything anywhere about this event, which was performed for one night only at Warwick Arts Centre as part of a tour. Part concert, part performance, it saw a major orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, while RSC actors performed the play between the beautiful score. While necessarily heavily limited by a tiny stage space and the concert format, this was a very fun version of the play, with excellent conflict between the lovers in particular and a superb orchestra playing the most famous Shakespearean music there is. Unfortunately, the evening was coloured by the fact my back collapsed and I had to be taken home by an ambulance afterwards…...

MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING (WUDS 2004?, dir. Ben Fowler, at Warwick Arts Centre Studio)

An interesting ‘Much Ado’, with spectacularly staged overhearing scenes and some interesting things to say about the play. Variable performances, but overall an interesting production.

OTHELLO (Cheek By Jowl 2004, dir. Declan Donnellan, at Riverside Studios London)

One of those divisive productions which people either loved or hated. Seeing it in traverse in London helped, I believe, but still I disliked the slow-talking Iago who seemed to have little control over his actions. However, the cast in general were excellent and the brutal murder of Desdemona, picking her up by the neck, was truly shocking.

SIR THOMAS MORE (RSC 2005, dir. Robert Delamere, at the Swan)

A highly enjoyable production that first introduced me to Nigel Cooke, who was similarly excellent in ‘Pericles’ and ‘A Winter’s Tale’ this season. Violent and exciting, a production which made a very strong case for the increased study in the theatre of this play.

THE TAMING OF THE SHREW (RSC Touring Company 2000, dir. Lindsay Posner, at Epic Leisure Centre, Ellesmere Port)

A fascinating induction, setting the play in modern day with Sly surfing for porn on the internet and eventually stumbling across an online video of the play. After that, a very funny production that still stays in the mind despite the relatively long time since and my unfamiliarity with it. Still the only RSC touring production I’ve seen.

THE TEMPEST (Shakespeare’s Globe 2000, dir. Lenka Udovicki, at the Globe)

My only experience of the Globe, and an interesting production- with a memorably ethereal Ariel who left the auditorium through the audience, a violent Caliban who kept the crowd laughing with his constant swearing at the overhead planes, and Vanessa Redgrave as an interesting Prospero.

TWELFTH NIGHT (RSC 2005, dir. Michael Boyd, at the RST)

I remember much favourable about this production, mostly the comedians- Forbes Masson, Andrew Mackay and Clive Wood winding up Richard Cordery’s Malvolio to perfection, before going on to greater things in the History plays this year. However, I hated this at the time- overall it was sloppy and dull, with awful performances from Viola, Olivia and Sebastian in particular. Lots of interest, lots of style, but very few laughs and an ultimately dull reading.

THE TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA (RSC 1998, dir. Edward Hall, at the Swan)

And finally, the first Shakespeare I ever saw. This picture is the only bit I really remember- a very funny Crab and Launce, who stay in my mind over nine years later. The Swan has remained one of my favourite theatres over the years too, and it’s nice to think back this far, to the start of my RSC viewing, and still be able to recall little things about a play.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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