The Comedy of Errors, Watermill Theatre Newbury, 27 April 2011
Mistaken or confused identity seems woven into Propeller’s DNA. So it was no surprise to find that their production of this early comedy went down a treat.
The production appeared to be located in a contemporary Spanish resort popular with British tourists.
The set had the same basic structure as that used for Richard III. There was a central wall with two doorways at ground and upper level. A large graffiti covered the lower part of the structure. A striped maypole stage right held up multicoloured string lights which spread out in various directions across the stage.
The cast appeared in mirror shades and football shirts, with a foreign looking policeman strutting around occasionally pulling up his leather trousers. Music played, with a figure dressed in a bright red outfit and red sombrero sat at a table stage right, while others sat at a similar table stage left.
After the singing stopped we got straight down to the red-suited Duke’s conversation with washed-up Aegeon. The Syracusan merchant’s wallet was shown to be empty in order to demonstrate the paucity of his “substance”. The threat to Aegeon was made plain by the Duke pointing a revolver at his head, but it was lowered as the ruler of Ephesus relented and allowed the old man to tell his story.
To aid understanding, the various sets of twins appeared at the upper doorway when referred to by Aegeon. His “goodly sons” appeared combing their hair in smart outfits, then the two Dromios with unkempt mop haircuts and skinhead jeans.
At the end of this expository sequence the Officer took Aegeon away. Here, and on other occasions, his steps were accompanied by noises made on a duck whistle which made it sound as if his leather trousers were constantly squeaking.
The pair of Syracusans arrived in Ephesus in the midst of a great party (1.2). The Merchant warned them to pass themselves off as from Epidamnum. When he mentioned Syracuse he spat on the ground, a gesture that his charges copied as if learning the basics of Ephesan prejudice.
The Merchant pointed at the nearby crowd indicating the “certain merchants” he had to meet. Their cheers told us that they recognised him.
Having sent his own Dromio on an errand, Antipholus gave us his “drop of water” speech. Stepping to the front of the stage, he struck a deflating tone by reminding the jollied audience that “He that commends me to mine own content commends me to the thing I cannot get.”
The sequence carried great clarity of meaning, proving that Propeller can create guffaws of laughter from their comedy but also inject gravitas where the text requires.
Dromio of Ephesus came to drag his master home to dinner, but he ran back again after having been accused of stealing the money recently entrusted to him. Antipholus of Syracuse came forward to tell the audience that the town was “full of cozenage”. The Ephesan crowd gathered conspiratorially close behind him as if to illustrate the point.
In what became one of the running gags of the night, Antipholus put his hands over his eyes and said rapidly “Mother said if I close my eyes they’ll go away” reverting to a childish defence mechanism.
The entry of the two principal female characters at the start of the second act was the moment at which the production moved beyond simple frivolity into something like a hallucinatory cheese dream.
The sight of Robert Hands’ Adriana was difficult to expunge from the memory. He teetered around on heels, his thin legs covered in leopard skin print leggings, wearing a shocking yellow top. He fluttered enormous fake eyelashes from below a leopard skin headband. A voice like a Monty Python ratbag sprang from between his brightly painted lips.
He was like a drag queen as envisioned by Gerald Scarfe. Adriana’s sister, Luciana, was played by David Newman as a slightly more normal figure in a blue dress and pink glasses.
Bells rang to indicate it was two o’clock as Luciana sat at a table stage right while Adriana complained about her absent husband. She upbraided her sister for her “servitude” towards men, blaming this for keeping her unwed. Luciana contradicted her, saying she had “problems of the marriage bed” at which point she wrinkled her nose at the banana she had just peeled and put it down in disgust.
Dromio of Ephesus found the pair and was soundly kicked on the backside by Adriana for his failures. These and other similar kicks were accompanied by sound effects. Dromio seemed to enjoy his rapid series of “quoths” telling the story of his encounter with Antipholus of Syracuse. Luciana’s “Quoth who?” was timed perfectly to complete this funny sequence.
Adriana finally kicked him out prompting Dromio’s question as to why he was being spurned like a football. Her complaint that she sat at home and starved “for a merry look” was particularly comical given her grotesque appearance.
The reference to the chain promised her by Antipholus was accompanied by a ding from an instrument. This sound was made almost every other time the chain was mentioned.
After her final words in the scene before exiting, Luciana had a tuba thrust into her arms for no apparent reason by one of the onstage crowd. She paused and walked off with it.
Antipholus of Syracuse sat eating an ice-cream at start of the next scene (2.2), but his pleasure was cut short. Singing “Just one cornetto” he was interrupted by one of the Ephesan crowd who took it from his hand, completing the song in the advert with “Give it to me!”
His Dromio mimed driving a car as he returned. He parked, got out the door and remotely locked the invisible vehicle, performing a very accurate impression of a central locking system. He tossed the keys into the air and tried to catch them but they were caught by Antipholus instead.
Antipholus punished Dromio with a particularly viscous neck lock causing his servant to croak that he could not breathe. However, the pair soon became more relaxed as Dromio joked about Time. They turned to the audience pointing out a bald man as an example of someone who “grows bald by nature” and his near neighbour as a potential hair donor. The text’s idea of bald men being compensated with wit was offered to the bald man in the hope of appeasing his frowns, and accompanied by an adlib “Are we okay now?”
Adriana and Luciana burst in through the rear doors. Adriana strode downstage and posed with her arm outstretched, an index finger pointing directly downwards to her side, which enjoined Antipholus to approach her.
Adriana’s haranguing of the wrong Antipholus was accompanied by some karate moves from Luciana. Adriana ended up coiled around Antipholus, as a vine to his elm. Commenting on this in an aside, Antipholus effortlessly disentangled himself from Adriana and stood aside, leaving her in the same position as when she clung to him. Agreeing to “entertain the offered fallacy” he slipped back into her embrace.
Dromio used his master’s line about his mother telling him the nasty things would go away if he closed his eyes, before crossing himself in fear at these strange events. Though this did raise the interesting question as to who exactly the Syracusans thought their mother was.
Luciana carried out a very effective open hand strike on Dromio, all of which seemed to impress Antipholus, creating the basis for his future affection for her.
Adriana’s instruction to her “husband” that they would “dine above” that day was half-whispered in a conspiratorial way. She mouthed it again while pointing upwards as she went through the centre doors now representing her house. The clear indication was that “dining above” was code for something else.
At the start of act three the Ephesan Antipholus and Dromio wandered in worse for wear. Their companion Angelo peed against the back of the set with an offstage sound effect provided by water being poured into a glass. Balthasar, the merchant, stood stage left and tried to prop himself up.
After berating Dromio, Antipholus spoke to Balthasar who suddenly woke up and said “chilli sauce” as if reliving a recent visit to a kebab house. He eventually collapsed onto Antipholus as the latter was speaking to him.
Dromio rang the intercom on the door of Adriana’s house. Voices answered from inside but no one was visible. On discovering that someone else was inside claiming to be Dromio and keeping the door, the Ephesan Dromio complained about the loss of his office and name, but then reconsidered this as a positive thing in the light of the disadvantages. Luce’s voice was heard from inside but she never appeared.
In his frustration at being refused entry to his own home, Antipholus beat at the door and eventually smashed the intercom buzzer right off, stamping on it as it continued to buzz despite being completely detached. Lots of other sirens and alarms began to wail. Poor Dromio, who had been sent to fetch a crowbar, ended up being hit with the implement.
Antipholus gave up trying to enter and decided to visit another “wench of excellent discourse”. The Courtesan suddenly appeared. She was a miniskirted figure with an oversized bust who introduced herself with a gruff, manly “Alright?” Antipholus’ reference to “this woman” was slightly sarcastic as if his attribution of gender was somewhat tendentious.
Another reference to the chain produced another ding as everyone exited into the Courtesan’s house. Antipholus paid her cash as he entered.
We got a clue as to what Adriana’s reference to “dining upstairs” might have meant at the start of 3.2. Antipholus was chased out of her house semi-naked and hid in the front row of the audience obliging them to bunch up to accommodate him. Adriana rushed out in pursuit dressed in a naughty outfit. She cried “I thought you liked it!” Luciana followed and began the scene’s scripted scolding of Antipholus and how he had forgot “a husband’s office”. Looking at all the possible meanings of that phrase, the staging was completely justified by the text.
Luciana and Antipholus sat down at a table centre stage. She took a hip flask and poured him a small shot. She then poured herself a huge drink, which she downed in one just as she spoke the words “Alas, poor women”. The juxtaposition of this laddishness with her sighing over female frailty was very amusing.
Antipholus wooed her, but she fought visibly against this temptation. Her emotional struggle to resist became a physical struggle as she and Antipholus traded karate blows. Antipholus matched her every move, which seemed to impress her. When he instructed her saying “Give me thy hand” she gave it, but then withdrew and exited to fetch her sister.
Dromio entered fleeing from the kitchen maid. His description of the greasy fatness of his pursuer was accompanied by gestures such as trudging through grime and pointing at a sweaty armpit.
The part where her girth was measured in ells had Dromio measure a distance from one side of the stage to the other. When the audience laughed at this he hit back saying “It’s not funny!” He held his hands out side to side and then rotated them so that he was measuring the same distance up and down, concluding that she was “spherical, like a globe”.
The exchange about finding countries in parts of the maid’s body was a standard run through with exploding carbuncles being demonstrated. An original joke came when Dromio explained how the maid had correctly itemised identifying marks on his body. The pause in his comment “A great wart on my left…arm ”was filled by a gesture to his left ball.
In the face of all this strangeness, both Antipholus and Dromio planned to flee Epheus. They invoked their mother’s advice in the face of peril and a nail violin provided eerie background sounds.
Angelo, a track-suited spiv, entered with the chain, whose mention prompted another ding. With the chain around his neck, Antipholus repeated his thoughts about the strangeness of the town, and at the end of this scene the interval came.
The cast’s “performance” continued during the interval. Their impromptu band played throughout the Watermill complex. Given what they could have been doing during this down time, this was a considerable commitment of effort.
The Officer introduced the second half by barking at the audience “No phones! No phones!” He sang “The Girl from Epidamnum” to a woman in the front row, telling her she was the most beautiful woman in all Bagnor and how they could go back to Spain together and make babies.
He was interrupted by a call on his police radio. He listened and repeated “Si” at intervals to indicate he understood and then said “Antipholus… gold chain… Angelo… goldsmith” and then exited.
Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio entered from seeing the Courtesan, who accompanied them. The master sent his servant to fetch a rope. The curious lines (23-24) ending in “I buy a rope” were said enthusiastically.
Angelo pursued Antipholus for the money for the chain, which he owed in turn to the merchant. Repeated mentions of the chain produced repeated dings. Eventually the Merchant paid the Officer to arrest Angelo, who reacted by getting the Officer to arrest Antipholus.
The Syracusan Dromio, previously dispatched to find a ship, entered by miming the piloting of a boat, which he tied up. He was castigated for not bringing the rope. Needing money for bail, Antipholus presented Dromio with a large key, whose appearance was accompanied by a clunking sound effect. This was to unlock a desk containing a purse.
Adriana appeared wearing a hideous face pack (4.2) to tell Luciana her woes. She spat out insults against her husband, which were then mollified by her line “I think him better than I say” which she spoke on her knees.
Dromio of Syracuse entered hurriedly with the key. When Luciana asked him why he was out of breath, his reply “By running fast” was quite sarcastic. More dings accompanied further mentions of the chain as Dromio explained the nature of Antipholus’ debt. A bell chimed prompting Dromio to hurry back.
Unlike his brother, Antipholus of Syracuse was having a good time. He sat at a table (4.3) drinking a cocktail and recounted how offers of money and goods were falling into his lap. The Ephesan crowd sat by him and sang, expressing his general satisfaction with the chorus from That’s The Way I Like It and singing “You are Gold” from Gold by Spandau Ballet when the subject of money was mentioned.
His Dromio entered with the money being fetched for the other Antipholus. The ensuing confusion was interrupted by the entry of the Courtesan. The Syracusans each held out two index fingers as crosses to fend her off as they fled. They tried using Harry Potter style spells such as “Expelliarmus-packet-of-crisps-us” but they were ineffective. The Courtesan’s parting speech told us that she was going to tell Adriana what had happened.
Dromio of Ephesus entered with the rope hidden behind his back as a surprise for his master, who was of course expecting bail money. Antipholus kicked both Dromio and the Officer, grabbing his baton. He took a swipe at Dromio but then froze before connecting with him.
Dromio stepped out of position and delivered his long speech (27-37) in which he complained of his hard life and accompanying beatings. This was performed in spotlight as “hearts and flowers” played on the violin behind him. He encouraged the audience to join in with empathetic ah-s at appropriate moments. Once the speech was over he stepped back into position and received a hefty swipe from the baton.
The arrival of Pinch was another show-stopping moment in the production. Backed by Adriana, Luciana and others, he launched into a tele-evangelist style song and dance. He took off his jacket and then his shirt and then stopped, telling the audience “I bet you’re glad I’m not taking any more off”. He spoke to a woman on the front row asking her “Are you Kate Middleton? Are you that woman that put the cat in the wheelie bin?” He also made jokes based on local references.
Getting back to the gospel show, he said that he took cash or credit cards. Pinch produced a wireless terminal into which Adriana willingly inserted her card and entered her pin.
Antipholus hit Pinch when he tried to take his pulse. The doctor’s response was to try to cast some sort of spell on him. He gestured with his outstretched hands as if some magical force was flowing from them. A sound effect indicated the radiated power. The attempted exorcism fitted with his lines about casting out the devil.
These moves did not work despite, repeated attempts. In frustration Pinch turned his magic hands on his followers who instantly recoiled under their influence. In the end, he turned his hands on himself, and was hoisted by his own petard, falling to the ground with a groan of “Bugger!”
Antipholus got involved in a big, fractious argument with Adriana about what had happened during the day.
Antipholus and Dromio were imprisoned in individual wheelie bins and wheeled around the entire auditorium amid general uproar. Once back in position on stage, one of them meowed as they emerged briefly. This was probably the first and last time that a Shakespeare production had referenced the “cat in the wheelie bin” case.
The pair eventually popped out of their bins. Dromio showed his bound hands, saying that he had “enter’d in bond” for his master. They were then wheeled off to Adriana’s house.
Having established why Antipholus had been placed under arrest, Adriana scuffled with the Courtesan as the two of them acted out their rivalry.
The Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio entered, one carrying a fishing net and the other a plastic seaside spade. Seeing the others, they began wielding these implements like light sabres making appropriate sound effects. After the others had run off, they completed the sword play by turning off of the swords, again making the relevant noises themselves.
At the start of act five Angelo and the Merchant met the Syracusans and wrangled over the chain. Antipholus and Dromio used the net and spade as light sabres once more to fight them off.
Adriana and the others, including the Abbess, entered and the fishing net was set on fire. Luciana took some nunchucks out of her handbag and swung them wildly back and forth, lunging at Antipholus rasping “Come on then!” in a manly voice.
The Syracusans ran off in the direction of the priory, represented by the centre doors. The early entry of the Abbess, standing centre stage in her sexy outfit and riding crop, meant that as Dromio told his master to run into the house he was able to stare at the strange figure of the Abbess and say “This is *some* priory”. The word “some” here became an indication of the premise’s peculiarity rather than its randomness.
Once they were inside the others began beating on the door. All of the Abbess’ lines about Adriana’s need for strictness in dealing with her husband took on kinky overtones as she flexed her riding crop. This was particularly the case when she said: “Ay, but not rough enough”.
Adriana was determined to wait for the Duke and complain that the Abbess was detaining her husband. Five bells rang as the Merchant pointed out the time and that the Duke was due to pass by. They all gathered at the front of the stage. The Merchant said that the Duke was coming to see a “reverend Syracusan merchant” who had been condemned to death. The mention of “Syracusan” caused everyone to spit. As he was at the front of the group the Merchant got some on the back of his neck, which he was obliged to wipe off.
The Duke entered with Aegeon, who was bound by the hands and looking quite rough. Adriana made her long drawn out speech about the injustice done to her by the Abbess. The Duke listened but seemed more interested in checking out the Courtesan’s prodigious chest. He eventually asked someone to fetch the Abbess.
The messenger told of Antipholus and Dromio escaping from Pinch’s custody and how they had singed off his beard, which was indicated as being in the pubic region. True to this description Pinch suddenly ran naked across the stage with his hands positioned firmly to protect his modesty and with a lit sparkler sticking out his backside.
The Ephesan Antipholus and Dromio finally appeared. After another argument among those assembled about the day’s events, Antipholus outlined his version to the Duke. Dromio copied his increasingly exasperated gestures as his story unfolded.
Each mention of the chain produced another ding from the musician standing just to the side of the stage. In his frustration, Antipholus started to say “ding” each time the note chimed in. The Duke did the same when his mention of the chain produced the same sound.
The fact that the characters were rebelling at one of the production’s conventions indicated that events were coming to a head as this abnormal normality was being brought to a close.
The argument about the chain between Angelo, the Merchant and Antipholus became a generalised conflict and a massive fight broke out. After a few moments of chaos The Duke shouted “Why, what an intricate impeach is this”. Order was restored as the combatants froze in position. The Officer was holding someone poised against the front row of the audience and Luciana was mid-kick with her foot on someone’s neck.
Aegeon had a second attempt at talking to the Ephesans, but Antipholus and Dromio did not recognise him, having been brought up without knowing their real father.
The Abbess entered with the Syracusans to double-takes all round, especially from Adriana who saw two husbands. The Abbess’ claim to have gained a husband by Aegeon’s liberty looked comical given the difference between the old man’s bedraggled condition and her S&M outfit.
Luciana realised that her fancy, Antipholus of Syracuse, was now available and used a breath freshener to make herself ready. The chain and money were returned. The purse was given to Angelo, but then taken by the Merchant much to Angelo’s regret.
The final sequence with the two cheery Dromios leaving hand in hand was a touching end to a very enjoyable production.
This was Propeller at their best: completely mad and completely serious at the same time. We were assaulted by hallucinatory visions and then moments later treated to thoughtful, explanatory stagings of passages in the text that less madcap productions gloss over without making their meaning plain.
Having been slightly disappointed by their Richard III, I’m now really pleased that I’ve booked to see the Hampstead Theatre run of Propeller’s current season in late June.