Stretching out Shakespeare’s wit

The Comedy of Errors, Tobacco Factory Bristol, 1 April 2011

The Tobacco Factory achieved some remarkable things in their Shakespeare season this year. After wowing audiences and critics with their excellent production of Richard II, a play characterised by intensity of language as well as psychological depth, they then turned their attention to the light and frothy Comedy of Errors and made an equal success of that.

But perhaps this production’s most significant achievement was its interpolation of a devised dialogue complete with authentic Shakespearean bawdy that neither of the two broadsheet reviewers (Guardian/FT) spotted as a 21st century insertion.

The Guardian’s reviewer even praised the production for bringing out “comic nooks that more bombastic productions lose” one of which was “gorgeously laden with innuendo in every line” without realising that this particular gorgeous nook was entirely Made in Bristol.

It says something for a company’s confidence that they are able to invent their own Shakespeare and successfully pass it off with virtually no one noticing.

And this confidence was also keenly felt in the joyous atmosphere of the production, which swept the audience along in its wake.

Starters

The performance did, however, take a while to warm up. The first scene with Egeon (David Collins) explaining his story to the Duke (Paul Currier) was long, drawn out and could have benefited from the mute dramatisation of events, as some productions provide in the background, if only to provide visual interest and clarity of exposition.

Dressed in the production’s Edwardian costume, the Duke sat behind a large desk while Egeon switched between sitting and standing, his every word noted by a stern female stenographer. As an undesirable Syracusan alien, Egeon was condemned to die for setting foot in Ephesus.

The speed soon picked up in 1.2 where we saw our first Dromio swap. The two Dromios played by Richard Neale (Syracuse) and Gareth Kennerley (Ephesus) were indistinguishable and it was genuinely disconcerting to see one rapidly mistaken for the other because the confusion was also shared by the audience, momentarily depriving them of the benefit of ironic superior knowledge.

So the Dromio dispatched to look after some money apparently returned with no knowledge of it, and invited Antipholus home to dinner.

Antipholus of Syracuse’s (Dan Winter) look of fear at the end of the scene, his reference to “cozenage” and the list of charges against the people of Ephesus, all hinted that the problems to come were partly the result of his own prejudice. A calmer, less suspicious outlook on life was implied to be the nobler path.

Innuendo

An interpolated sequence (as mentioned above) showed an initial meeting between Antipholus of Ephesus (Matthew Thomas) and the Courtesan (Kate Kordel) in which the latter offered to give Antipholus her “ring”, in return for which she expected him to “stand to” and shower her with gold. Fnarr, fnarr!

Had this dense collection of bawdy been genuine it would have deserved a prominent position in any study of Shakespeare’s sexual innuendo. But alas, this sequence was the pure invention of the production.

The dramatisation of this teasing relationship between Antipholus of Ephesus and the Courtesan made stark sense of the following scene in which his wife Adriana, played by Dorothea Myer-Bennett, waited impatiently for him to return to dinner. She feared that he was spending time with some paramour, concluding “I know his eye doth homage otherwhere”.

Her sister Luciana (Ffion Jolly) sat on a chair looking stern and dowdy in her studious glasses and expounded her purely theoretical notions of wifely obedience to errant husbands. Meanwhile Adriana paced up and down, alive with the indignation that warranted her practical response to her husband’s absence.

Reunited with the correct Dromio instead of the Ephesian one that had invited him “home” to dinner, Antipholus of Syracuse lost his temper with his servant. But having argued intensely, they were reconciled as Dromio joked. As the atmosphere relaxed, they sat on narrow circular seats fitted around diagonally opposite pillars to enjoy Dromio’s witticisms.

The entry of Adriana and Luciana who had gone forth to find Antipholus was marked by a long speech from his very irate wife. The comic purpose behind the length of this speech became obvious as Adriana’s uninterrupted harangue drew a series of increasingly puzzled looks from the two Syracusans. The comedy was both spoken and unspoken.

Doorway

Act three saw Antipholus of Ephesus and his business associates enter singing a drunken song and arrive outside his house expecting to be let in. The fantastic sequence in which they were refused entry was one of the highlights of the production.

The dramatic convention used to establish the doorway added to the hilarity. The pillars at one end of the central performance area marked off the inside of the house, while several metres away at the other end of the space the far set of pillars became the other side of the door, with insiders and outsiders separated by the entire area between.

The production renamed the character of Luce as Ginn (Holly McKinley), which was the name of the one of the maids mentioned at 3.1.31.

The unconventional staging of the doorway was exploited to underscore its absurdity. Throwing himself into his newly-found role as defender of Adriana’s household, Dromio of Syracuse knelt on the ground and talked through an imaginary gap under the door to his Ephesian counterpart at the other end of the space. In the throes of his anger he spat under the gap. And after a split-second gap, Dromio of Ephesus recoiled as if having received the contemptuous payload.

As Antipholus of Ephesus mimed knocks on the imaginary door, Michael Coveney’s Angelo knocked on a real wooden door some distance behind in time with Antipholus’ blows.

At one point this synchronisation broke down so that knocks rapped out when Antipholus was motionless, prompting anxious looks from both of them in what was obviously a staged moment of comedy.

An interpolated dumb show with music from the production’s piano and violin showed Adriana crying to herself in spotlight while Antipholus of Syracuse looked on in silence. This provided context for Luciana’s accusation at the start of the next scene that this Antipholus had “quite forgot a husband’s office”.

Why, Miss Jones…

But of course this Antipholus was not Adriana’s husband, which from our audience perspective excused his sudden interest in Luciana. He knelt before her as she sat in her chair, took her bookish glasses from her face and stroked her “golden hairs”.

Luciana’s looked mortified at these advances, partly because they marked yet another instance of what appeared to be Antipholus’ desertion of Adriana, but mostly because of her own prudish rejection of her own physicality. Her line at 3.2.53 was paced so that it became “What! Are you mad…?”

This was followed by yet another reaction to an unwanted advance, this time Dromio of Syracuse brandishing a fork as he fled from the cook, who had taken him for her love, the Dromio of Ephesus.

The hilarious anatomising of the cook in terms of countries was completed by the final question from Antipholus about the location of the “Netherlands”. Dromio’s solemn reply of “O, sir, I did not look so low” was freighted with enormous tongue-in-cheek ribaldry.

Just after the two Syracusans had vowed to flee Ephesus, the Merchant found Antipholus and presented him with the gold chain, which, in his confusion, Antipholus was too distracted to refuse. And on that note after the fifty minutes of the first half, the interval came.

The second half began with 4.1 and Doron Davidson’s imposing Merchant trying to get his money from Angelo, who in turn insisted that he was owed by Antipholus of Ephesus. The latter soon arrived with his Dromio, dispatching him to buy some rope with which Antipholus was planning to chastise his wayward household.

Cracker

The audience laughed heartily at Dromio’s line “I buy a thousand pound a year. I buy a rope” despite the fact that no one actually understands precisely why it is funny. But as Frank Carson is fond of saying it’s the way you tell ‘em that counts.

Angelo became increasingly frustrated at Antipholus’ confusion over the chain, which was something he knew nothing about because the Syracusan Antipholus had received it.

As Angelo ordered the Officer (Craig Fuller) to arrest Antipholus, Dromio of Syracuse returned telling of the ship he had been ordered him to locate. Greeting Antipholus of Ephesus with this news made it look as if he had been planning to evade his debts and flee. This effect was made more obvious by the word “escape”, which is not in the text, being added to Dromio’s lines. It was noted and repeated back accusingly by Angelo as confirmation of his suspicions. Poor Dromio of Syracuse was then sent to Adriana’s house to fetch bail money.

Scene 4.2 saw Adriana prompting a distraught Luciana for details about Antipholus’ advances towards her. Her string of invective against her husband was countered by Luciana questioning why she should be concerned for such a low-life. Adriana’s reply “Ah, but I think him better than I say” was a laugh out loud moment for the audience as the comedy uncovered a moment of truth and tenderness amid the chaos and slapstick.

In this sequence Dorothea Myer-Bennett yet again showed herself to be a very talented performer with great timing and stage presence.

This was interrupted by the arrival of Dromio of Syracuse who soon departed with the money required by Antipholus of Ephesus. He ran into his real Syracusan master who had tried to disguise himself and was reading a Greek newspaper. The ensuing mutual accusations of memory loss were cut short by the entry of the Courtesan, who was greeted with threats and grimacing as if she were a devil.

Her insistence that Antipholus should dine with her and give her the promised chain extended to grabbing hold of him and pulling him away, while Dromio took hold of his master’s other arm and strained in the opposite direction.

The humour of this tug of war was topped only by the freed Antipholus drawing his sword stick and making it into a cross to fend off the Courtesan with the words “Avaunt, thou witch”. He and Dromio fled leaving the Courtesan vowing to tell Adriana about her husband’s promise.

Money for old rope

Dromio of Syracuse found Antipholus of Ephesus under arrest hid the rope he had been sent to fetch behind his back before presenting it. The rope was therefore a shock to Antipholus who had been expecting bail money.

Antipholus of Ephesus did not take this well. He beat Dromio on the back with the rope very hard. This made the audience gasp as the rope was quite solid and heavy and the blows were quite loud. Padding could have been involved but was not in evidence.

To increase the percussive power of the rope, Antipholus then made two knots in it and proceeded to test the rope by thwacking it with great force on floor. He and Dromio ended up fighting over the rope just as Adriana, Luciana, the Courtesan as well as Pinch (Jack Bannell) and his henchmen entered.

Dromio managed to wrest the rope from Antipholus and climbed up one of the pillars to suspend the rope like a hangman’s noose while telling Adriana to “respice finem, respect your end”.

In an attempt to sort out the confusion, Adriana, her husband Antipholus and his Dromio swapped notes on the day’s events but could not agree on them. Antipholus’ threats against Adriana, whom he suspected of being involved in the plot against him, was the final proof needed that he was mad: Pinch’s ominous dark-suited assistants put him in a straight-jacket.

The Officer who had first arrested him looked scared of these henchmen and nervously insisted on his right to detain Antipholus but did not sound prepared to enforce it. Dromio ended up with rope tied around his hands, and characteristically joked about being “entered in bond” for his master.

Adriana’s face was a picture of indignation when the Courtesan told her about the ring she had given to Antipholus. This was yet another of Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s memorable moments in the performance.

Desperadoes

The Syracusans dramatically burst in with their swords drawn sending the others fleeing in panic. Antipholus’ line “I see these witches are afraid of swords” got a big laugh from the audience, not least because of the ridiculous combative postures adopted by the Syracusans as they fended off their enemies.

For act five the priory was indicated by a cross by the space’s east double doors. After starting a fight with Angelo and the Merchant, the two Syracusans were also confronted by Adriana and Luciana. Outnumbered, they ran through the double doors to take refuge in the priory.

The Abbess (Nicky Goldie) was quite short and her easy dominance of the situation was made the funnier by her diminutive stature. When questioning Adriana about the cause of her husband’s sorrow, she cited a list of possible reasons concluding with “unlawful love” and demanded to know to which one he was subject. Adriana was uncharacteristically muted when replying “To none of these… except it be the last”.

Egeon was brought in with his hands tied at the opposite end of the space behind the Duke, to whom Adriana was planning to make her entreaty.

In one of the stand-out moments of the performance, Adriana knelt before the Duke and without looking him directly in the eye, rushed at great speed through her entire speech (5.1.136-160) in a single, yet coherent, breath.

As the Duke looked on bemused, the audience lapped up the humour of her quick-fire account of her entire experience of the day and applause greeted its final gasping appeal for the release of her husband from the priory.

Grim, the maid, was the messenger that told the assembled company that Adriana’s husband and Dromio had broken loose. This news was followed shortly by the arrival of the two Ephesans. Recognising his son, Egeon tried to break free from his guard.

Antipholus also had a comic turn presenting his grievances to the Duke. But instead of a rapid-fire kneeling plea, he paced agilely from person to person, pointing an angry accusative finger at all those who had wronged him. The Duke looked baffled and the audience laughed at this second comic recap.

Insane root

The Duke eventually accused everyone of being under the influence of “Circe’s cup”. But nonetheless sent someone into the priory to fetch the Abbess. Egeon tried to make himself known to the Ephesans thinking them to be the Syracusans who had grown up knowing him, but they had no memory of Egeon.

The Abbess soon returned with the Syracusans, who now for the first time confronted both their Ephesan siblings. Adriana thought she saw two husbands in a moment that was reminiscent of Olivia’s first sight of two Cesarios in Twelfth Night.

As the reunions and reconciliations took place, some of the audience, unaccustomed to the way in which coincidences pile up in Shakespeare’s comedies, thought that the Abbess’s announcement that she had gained a husband was just an old nun trying it on. The explanation a few lines later that she was in fact the long-lost Emilia soon put that matter to rest.

In a touching moment, when Antipholus of Syracuse told Luciana that he was still earnest towards her, she responded to this restatement of his affections by taking off her glasses in readiness for his advances. Previously Antipholus had removed her eyewear to admire her and she had reacted badly thinking him Adriana’s adulterous husband and pointedly replaced them.

After the Abbess and the others had departed for a reunion celebration, the two Dromios remained behind with the Ephesan eyeing his brother suspiciously from the side of the space. But he joined his Syracusan brother and they went off together hand in hand.

Conclusions

The production made full use of the Tobacco Factory’s empty blackness to create a great feeling of comic energy filling a completely fluid space. For the most part the performance area was filled with people with little or nothing in way of props. This provided enormous freedom of movement and intense focus on the cast.

Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Adriana was the perhaps the most memorable performance of the night. Her comic indignation at her husband’s apparent misbehaviour was given a serious aspect by the brief mute scene in which we saw her sobbing to herself.

Andrew Hilton is now just showing off. He’s taken Shakespeare’s histories by storm with his Richard II and has now shown his mastery of a great Shakespeare comedy, augmenting it with “original” Shakespearean dialogue that has fooled critics. Good for him!

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