The Comedy of Errors, Olivier Theatre, 10 December 2011
The bleak innards of a derelict building towered gloomily above the stage. The sound of dripping water echoed around the skeleton of a structure that looked more like the location for a dark production of Macbeth or Hamlet than anything designed to contain a light-hearted farce. Thumping music pounded out a steady beat.
Finally the house lights went down and figures emerged from the shadows. Egeon, with his head in a hood, was brought on by two heavies. A woman in a tracksuit and hooped earrings stood and watched as they rifled through his pockets, taking his money and passport. The ‘Duke’ wore a camel coat and scarf, and laughed at the paucity of Egeon’s funds.
The Duke’s voice and bearing marked him out as a London gangster. It became clear that this ‘Ephesus’ was contemporary London.
Egeon’s story of how he came to be in Ephesus was acted out on the scaffold by younger versions of the main characters. Egeon’s wife gave birth to children while the “mean woman” and her husband who produced the Dromio twins stood below. The Dromio children were represented by folded cloth, which quickly disappeared to be replaced by the wad of money paid in exchange for the twins.
As Egeon got to the part about the storm, sailors appeared on the scaffold representing the doomed ship making lots of noise. Egeon’s wife and one of each set of twins were positioned at opposite ends of the structure, and then the huge scaffold structure split in two so that they were separated when the mast broke.
The fishermen of Corinth were a helicopter rescue crew, who winched Egeon’s wife, her son and his Dromio to safety.
Egeon knelt and watched his youngest son and eldest care (as his 18-year old self) walk out of a trap door. His young Dromio companion appeared at his side in an Arsenal football top.
This dramatisation of the old man’s story was very welcome as it made the back story much clearer. The text is an amazingly long-winded piece of exposition and it is certainly not dumbing down to elucidate it in this way.
A strolling band sung a modern English song in Romanian as the set rearranged itself into a street outside a London café (1.2). Traffic wardens strolled by as business people sat sipping lattes and peering at their laptops.
A man in a track suit escorted the Syracusans into town. Lenny Henry (Antipholus of Syracuse) spoke in a generic West African/Nigerian accent that was well-paced and rhythmic. His Dromio, played by Lucian Masamati, who grew up in Africa, spoke in his normal voice.
Lenny’s first reference to money gave him an opportunity to repeat the word in a distinctive pronunciation, drawing the sound out to stress its significance. His Dromio joked about absconding with the money and departed.
After the abrasiveness of his money talk, Antipholus spoke a very calm and thoughtful soliloquy downstage comparing himself to drop of water seeking another drop in the ocean.
The London Dromio (Daniel Poyser) discovered Lenny’s Nigerian Antipholus and spoke in a London accent to get him to come home to dinner. He was dressed in an identical Arsenal shirt as his Nigerian counterpart and had the same afro hairstyle, so the only obvious distinction was accent.
Dromio continued his entreaties, but did not answer the questions about the gold given to the other Dromio. Lenny sat on a café chair and pressed the tips of his fingers together in irritation as he spelled out his concern about his “mohrnay”.
The repeated mentions of his ‘wife’ drove Antipholus to distraction. Lenny grabbed a passing baguette from a waitress and began to hit the London Dromio with it. A fight broke out amid scenes of general uproar with food and drink flying everywhere. Dromio ran off, while the café customers froze staring at Lenny, who stood in spotlight to describe the people of the town as jugglers, sorcerers and witches.
Given that several of the people he was addressing were obviously city types, there was a delicious possibility that this tirade against the sorcerers of the town was a disguised comment on the financial community. This would surely have delighted production sponsor KPMG.
The set was rearranged for 2.1 so that the Phoenix apartment block appeared centre stage. Adriana (Claudie Blakley) stood on the first floor balcony accompanied by her sister Luciana (Michelle Terry), who indulged in a cocktail. Their Essex accents were so strangled that they verged on distracting parody.
The focus on dress and accent meant there was little differentiation between the two characters. This lack of contrast was one of many missed opportunities to create additional comedy.
Dromio appeared in the street below and took a drink from a whisky bottle, telling Adriana that her husband was horn mad. His remark about scarcely understanding Antipholus linked in with Dromio’s imitation of his assumed master’s Nigerian accent when he re-enacted their conversation.
Adriana and Luciana exchanged a worried look on hearing that Antipholus did not know his mistress, and their request for clarification was concerned. They had to pour water and drinks down onto Dromio to encourage him to go back.
The marvellous revolving buildings opened out to form a snooker hall (2.2) with two tables and a bar at one side. Lenny nonchalantly potted balls. The Nigerian Dromio returned and Lenny mocked the London accent of other Dromio, which he assumed his servant had adopted for some reason.
Dromio denied messing Antipholus around, causing his master to beat him with the snooker cue. This looked very unconvincing, which was surprising because the fight coordinator on this production was the famous Kombat Kate.
Antipholus explained his anger telling Dromio to read his mood and “creep in crannies” when the sun hid his beams. Lenny held up his hands in a defensive pose and stepped gingerly backwards to demonstrate how Dromio should back off when his mood was dark.
The long exchange about Time and hair was cut. This was a very good idea as that passage can feel a bit strained.
Adriana and Luciana appeared outside the hall, knocked on the window and entered. Adriana began to vamp her way back into husband’s affections. Lenny, with an increasingly aghast expression on his face, moved around the table to avoid her.
The other snooker players went ‘ahhh!’ when Adriana said that she had been treated unfairly. She continued to entice the man she had mistaken for her husband, and Lenny’s panicked response to her lengthy supplication: “Plead you to me fair dame?” had great comic impact.
She put down her bag, but her solicitous sister Luciana picked it up and looked after it. This was a neat and economical way of illustrating their relationship and set us up for Luciana’s future concern for her sister’s wellbeing.
Adriana’s account of events caused confusion. Lenny spat his anger at Dromio when she implied he had spoken to her, something Dromio vigorously denied.
Lenny concluded that the two women might have powers derived from “inspiration”, which in this Nigerian context was taken to be similar to ‘juju’. The two men backed away from the women clicking their fingers as if warding off a spell.
Adriana wrapped herself seductively around Lenny, whose horrified silence was broken only by “To me she speaks(?)” But he eventually entertained “the offered fallacy” by kissing her.
Luciana mocked Dromio’s African accent when chiding him for not responding. The word “ass” was changed to “arse” to make the jibe more contemporary.
Adriana implied that ‘dining above’ was something kinky and the snooker players jeered appreciatively, suggesting that Antipholus had struck lucky.
Act three saw the action return to the Phoenix. Adriana brought her sister and the Nigerian Antipholus and Dromio back to her flat. They went through the entrance door, locked it behind them and got into the lift. Dromio was last in and seemed to be nervous.
The London Antipholus (Chris Jarman) and Dromio turned up along with the moneylender and Asian goldsmith. Antipholus tried to get in to his apartment block, but was locked out.
Dromio called up to the servants, and was met with insults from the Nigerian Dromio through the intercom. Luce appeared on the balcony and spoke with a Spanish accent. Adriana was seen briefly on the top floor in a dressing gown with Lenny close behind also in a dressing gown, implying that they were sleeping together. This did not sit with Luciana’s subsequent complaint that he was being not a proper husband to her sister.
Antipholus’s “There is something in the wind” led to a series of fart gags involving Dromio breaking wind into the intercom, with the Dromio inside the house farting back. The London Dromio replied, but feared following through, giving a new twist (and slightly altered punctuation) to the phrase “Here’s too much. Out upon thee”.
Eventually they have up trying to get in and the London Antipholus decided to visit the wench at the Porcupine.
At the start of 3.2 Dromio went out onto the balcony whereupon Luce dragged him back in. Lenny made his way out followed by Luciana, who tottered on high heels.
Having concluded that Antipholus was having an affair, Luciana nervously overdramatised her request that Antipholus should conceal his dalliance.
Nerves turned to aghast astonishment when Lenny knelt in front of Luciana, worshipping her. She made her escape by sneaking back into the house, claiming that she was going to seek her sister’s approval for the match.
Dromio and Lenny went through the incredibly funny dissection of Luce in terms of countries. The audience laughed (as they often do) at the reference to “Belgia, the Netherlands” of which Dromio said: “O, sir, I did not look so low.”
Dromio was dispatched to look for a ship. Angelo called on Lenny, who answered nervously, wondering what was going to happen next. He took the chain offered by the goldsmith and vowed to leave town, at which point the interval came.
The set was rearranged for the start of act four with the Porcupine brothel stage left and Angelo’s goldsmiths shop stage right with a narrow alleyway between them in which lurked assorted shady characters, including a tall transvestite. As music blared out, Dromio of London sat at the bottom of the stairs to the upper floor of the Porcupine waiting for his master to emerge.
Angelo discussed his debt with the moneylender as the London Antipholus emerged from seeing the Courtesan, sending Dromio off to buy a rope’s end. The ensuing argument between Antipholus and Angelo about the non-delivery of the chain was an excellent example of people not taking onboard the meaning of words. Angelo was arrested by the officer. But soon the actual handcuffs were on Antipholus who owed money to Angelo.
Dromio of Nigeria arrived with a Boots bag full of stuff for the voyage and news of a ship. The others did not display much consternation at this apparent attempt to flee the city. Antipholus sent Dromio back to Adriana to fetch bail money.
Adriana relaxed on a massage table while Luciana sat drinking another cocktail (4.2). Luciana They discussed Antipholus’ declaration of love to Luciana. Each of Luciana’s key revelations was preceded by a ratchet of the massage table back, which visually and audibly chronicled the increasing tension.
Dromio entered to ask for the bail money. He got a massage on his leg, but tried to extract himself from the masseurs clutches before running back to Antipholus with the money.
Lenny walked past the Porcupine (4.3) and was greeted by tarts of various sexes. He was worried that people seemed to be greeting him familiarly. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Dromio returned with the bail money in a satchel.
The Courtesan leant out of her window to greet Lenny. But his “Satan avoid” reaction was excessive, especially since she was at a distance upstairs. This just looked wrong. She asked for her ring, but Antipholus and Dromio ran off down the alley, using a pepper spray to fend off the Courtesan and others who tried to follow them. The Courtesan vowed to tell Adriana what her husband was up to.
To emphasise the oppressive, cloying atmosphere of this strange town, the Nigerian pair found themselves at the centre of slow-motion sequence in which the London lowlifes surrounded and pressed close to them, causing them great anguish. The band played People Are Strange.
The London Antipholus was now under arrest (4.4). The London Dromio dramatically took the rope’s end out of his bag, much to Antipholus’s dismay. He hit Dromio with the rope, but this was another fight sequence that looked under-rehearsed and not very anarchic.
This brawl was discovered by Adriana and Luciana, each clasping the other’s hand for support and comfort, followed by the Courtesan. Pinch, a doctor with an ID badge, led the way. Adriana paid cash to Pinch before he began using a Bible to exorcise the evil from Antipholus. He recorded observations on a dictation machine.
This sequence felt under-developed and could have been wackier. But that was only because it preceded one of the most elaborate sequences in the production.
Pinch had to call for backup when Antipholus first resisted and then escaped. An ambulance drove onto the stage accompanied by a whole army of nurses brandishing torches.
The stage began to revolve and the chase ensued. The fugitive pair raced in and out of buildings to the sound of helicopters and under the glare of searchlights. Both pairs of Antipholus and Dromio sped past on kick scooters with the nurses in chase.
Pinch lay in wait round a corner with a huge syringe and stuck it into the London Antipholus, encasing him and his Dromio in straitjackets. As Antipholus succumbed to the injection, he moaned about the “unhappy strumpet”. The straitjacketed Dromio joked about being “entered in bond”.
Lenny and his Dromio burst out of a knife shop brandishing blades and scared them all away, after which Lenny did a dance of victory to celebrate this success.
The set behind changed, positioning the Abbey Clinic centre stage. Its name plate included the slogan “where talking cures”. This was a nice ironic touch given Lenny’s previous stay at the real Priory Clinic to which this must surely have been a reference.
The moneylender got into an argument about the chain with Lenny, who drew a knife (5.1). The lender delved into his briefcase and extracted a large meat cleaver, but it was still in its plastic packaging. He stripped that off, but was left brandishing a large knife in its safety cover. This unexpected funny moment was very satisfying.
Once again Adriana and Luciana entered holding hands tightly in mutual support. They tried to grab Antipholus and Dromio, but the men rang the door bell of the clinic and ran inside the door, which closed firmly behind them.
The Abbess came out and was immediately recognisable as the Nigerian woman who had been Egeon’s wife in the first scene’s dramatisation of his story.
The Abbess displayed her sound common sense in the discussion with Adriana about the cause of Antipholus’s unhappiness. Adriana tried to get the nurses into the Abbey, then offered money, asking if the Abbess’s servants could bring him out.
Adriana sat despondently on the doorstep until her sister suggested complaining to the Duke. She rose and began scrolling through the screen of her smart phone, trying to contact him. She was told he would be passing by very soon.
Egeon was brought in from stage right. Adriana knelt to the Duke and recounted her story. Sometimes this speech is delivered at frantic pace to create a comic effect, but this production had her speak slowly, part of a general slowdown in pace in the final minutes of the play that created a more emotional and dignified atmosphere.
Luce brought news that the London Antipholus and Dromio had broken free, after which they arrived and demanded justice from the Duke. Dromio looked puzzled when Antipholus said, during the course of his account of events, that he had sent Dromio home for the bail money, something which had happened to the other Dromio.
The money lender realised something was wrong when he sarcastically remarked that Antipholus had returned outside the Abbey “by miracle”.
The Duke became impatient with the “intricate impeach” while Egeon seemed disappointed that he had not been recognised by his sons.
Emilia emerged with Lenny and his Dromio, which caused an immediate frisson of recognition and wonderment. This looked very moving, and Angelo fainted with shock. Egeon pulled away from his guard to join Emilia whom he recognised.
Both the Antipholuses stood together stage right and the Duke could not tell them apart. Humour infected the poignancy of the closing moments as Adriana asked which one of them had dined with her that afternoon.
Angelo angrily identified the chain for which had not yet received payment, but he quietened down when the London Antipholus pointed out that he had been unjustly arrested because of it.
Lenny’s summary of events was rounded off with a sing-song delivery of “And thereupon these errors are arose”. He handed the chain to Adriana as if to make up for taking advantage of the previous confusion, but she slapped him. The ducats were passed to Angelo and then on to the moneylender.
The reunited family had a big group hug with the Abbess. The two Antipholuses stood side by side as they went into the Abbey. The London Antipholus put on a Nigerian accent, which fooled the Nigerian Dromio into mistaking him for his real master. Lenny had to correct the error, which the two brothers found equally amusing. They laughed in the same mad manner, further emphasising how alike they were.
There was laughter at the reference to the London Dromio’s “fat friend” which, after all that seriousness, referred back to an earlier joke. The Dromios went into the house together to great audience applause.
Lenny Henry pretending to be from Nigeria is funny. Michelle Terry pretending to be from Essex is not funny.
This goes to show that the bigger and more daring the leap in characterisation, the more amusing the result.