What Comedy, friends, is this?

The Comedy of Errors, Royal Shakespeare Theatre Stratford, 20 July 2012

A tropical fish tank stood centre stage looking rather whimsical amid the dockside scene. The set was a variation on the basic Shipwreck Trilogy design. The Victorian ironwork, in tribute to the Roundhouse in London, was visible in the far distance, and ropes were attached to the curved back section to make it look like the boards of a dockyard pier. The overhead gantry was used as a crane to bring in crates and other set elements.

The lights went down at the start of the performance (1.1) and came up again to reveal the Duke (Sandy Grierson) dunking Egeon’s head in the fish tank. He took time out from this water torture to announce the ban on Syracusans entering Ephesus through a tannoy carried on a wheeled frame. In modern dress, he was protected by machine gun-toting guards whose body armour bore the name of the relevant actor.

Looking for all the world like a thuggish criminal head of a failed state, every word spoken by this leader was recorded by a stenographer. His air of casual cruelty was enhanced by the fact he was wearing a dressing gown; the implication being that this punitive exercise, respecting the unity of time of the play, was just a part of his leisurely morning routine.

The Duke allowed Egeon (Nicholas Day) to tell his story, but still dunked his head when he said his task was “unspeakable”.

At the start of the next scene (1.2) the crane deposited a crate centre stage. It opened to reveal the Syracusan pair. The captain leant inside to speak to the cowering men telling them to pretend they were from Ephesus. But we soon saw that Dromio (Bruce Mackinnon) was wearing an “I ♥ Syracuse” t-shirt.

After Dromio was sent on an errand, another stowaway crept out from a different crate and made his getaway.

When the other Dromio (Felix Hayes), in an identically patterned “I ♥ Ephesus” shirt, entered across the diagonal from the walkway, he ended up being wrestled to the ground and then chased around the crate by Antipholus (Jonathan McGuinness) before departing without getting his master to come to dinner. Felix Hayes had very distinctive powerful voice with an accent that lent itself to this comedy role. The two Dromios were very difficult to tell apart.

At this point a woman climbed out of yet another crate, this time pausing to take with her a large amount of clothing from inside her hiding place. As she gathered up her goods and left, this prompted Antipholus to remark that the town was reputed to be “full of cozenage”.

In an interval between scenes, the Courtesan (Amie Burns Walker) kissed the Syracuse Antipholus, taking him by surprise. This was a nice touch that enhanced the web of misidentification being spun.

Adriana (Kirsty Bushell) and Luciana (Emily Taaffe) were flown in by crane on a trestle representing her house (2.1). Adriana was a tall strong figure, while Luciana wore pink had a girly, untouched demeanour. The former was combative and stressed as opposed to the latter’s inexperienced idealist. Adriana stuffed a cloth into Luciana’s mouth to shut her up.

When Dromio told Adriana that her husband was “horn mad” she chased him, forcing Dromio to take refuge at the top of the frame.

Adriana chased Dromio around the bottom of the pallet before getting onboard to be hoisted offstage.

Bail

Egeon was brought across the stage with the tannoy advertising for his bail to be paid. The female stowaway was then seen pushing a shopping trolley full of purloined clothing, which she proceeded to sell to passersby.

The Syracusans met up again (2.2). The lines dealing with wigs and time were cut. Adriana and Luciana caught up with them, and Adriana slapped Antipholus for being absent. She spoke to him alluringly, but he and Dromio backed into the stage right corner by some stagnant water fearing that these women knew their names “by inspiration”.

After the usual comedy resulting from his seduction and acceptance to dine with this stranger, a door was flown in for them to enter into Adriana’s house.

Dromio hovered outside, so that when Adriana swung the door open violently it struck him. The same occurred when Antipholus came out looking for him.

Ephesus Antipholus (Stephen Hagan) and friends entered singing in rap. Ephesus Dromio in particular was having fun, rapping in a deep gangsta voice. His first speech in scene 3.1 leant itself wonderfully to rap rhythm:

Say what you will, sir, but I know what I know;
That you beat me at the mart, I have your hand to show:
If the skin were parchment, and the blows you gave were ink,
Your own handwriting would tell you what I think.

The solitary door swung around, so that those inside and out had to follow its revolutions in order to remain on opposite sides.

The fat maid Nell (Sarah Belcher) appeared stuffing her top with vegetables. Adriana popped her head out of a window that opened in the back of the set. She was in her dressing gown, hinting that “dinner” was a euphemism for sexual activity. Dromio’s head was beaten against the door as Ephesus Antipholus’ frustration grew.

After Ephesus Antipholus departed in disgust to see the Courtesan (3.2), Luciana followed Syracuse Antipholus out of the door carrying one of his shoes, which he had forgotten. This subtly reinforced the idea that he had not been eating.

They sat close to each other on a barrel. As she sweet-talked Antipholus into being more of a husband to Adriana, Luciana ended up putting her hand on his thigh. Suddenly conscious of the gesture’s impropriety, she hastily retracted her hand and adjusted her top in case that was sending out the wrong sort of signals. But this did hint at an underlying attraction that made this couple’s subsequent marriage more believable.

Syracuse Dromio entered in a panic, looking really haunted. He measured the expanse of Nell’s size. They took refuge inside some barrels as Nell entered in pursuit of the other Dromio.

Puzzled by how Nell knew of his intimate distinguishing marks, Dromio mentioned his wart and then looked down without using the text’s “on my left arm”, the euphemistic silence implying that its location was genital. This gag was reused later.

After the Goldsmith (Sargon Yelda) gifted the chain to Antipholus, the first half of the performance ended with the first stowaway being caught and then a gun pointed at his head just before the stage was blacked out, implying an execution. After all the comedy, this dumb show reminded us that Ephesus was a violent place where people were killed, and that if Egeon’s ransom was not forthcoming, a similar fate would befall him at the end of the day.

Interval

At the start of the second half (4.1), Ephesus Antipholus dispatched his Dromio to buy a rope. The Goldsmith, unable to obtain money for the chain, needed his inhaler to deal with the panic. Antipholus was arrested just before Syracuse Dromio returned from the harbour with life belts and jackets around his neck. The poor Dromio was then sent back to Adriana’s house into the clutches of “Dowsabel” to fetch bail money.

The pallet representing the house was flown in again from the back of the set (4.2). In a comic echo of the production’s opening scene, Adriana was ducking Luciana’s head in a bucket. The implication was that Luciana’s account of Antipholus’ wooing of her was being extracted by force and not offered voluntarily. The scene also reinforced our understanding of Adriana as someone given to violence.

After collecting the bail money, Dromio was ordered to “bring thy master home…”. He tried to step from the swinging pallet but could not find a firm footing on the ground. Adriana’s “…immediately” which came after this interlude of stage business, encouraged him to step off.

Syracuse Antipholus was wheeled in on a trolley heaped with merchandise that had been freely given to him (4.3). Dromio brought him gold that he was not expecting either.

Their encounter with the Courtesan, an alluring vision in her short, tight skirt, saw the woman flirt and lean suggestively over a barrel. Dromio tried to alert his master that her request for the ring was a witch’s trick. But as he issued his warning to avoid her, he kept glancing sideways at her rear and growling ‘cor’.

They hid behind some barrels to avoid her, and Dromio rolled a barrel at her, which she simply kicked and returned.

After she had failed to entrap Antipholus, she extracted a large number of breast enhancers from her top, throwing them one by one at the door of his house.

Ephesus Dromio ran past holding the rope he had bought and paused before her. He was holding the rope end in front of him so that it stood erect. He looked at the alluring Courtesan, then at the erect rope before hurrying away again.

Dromio met his master, who was expecting bail money, and proudly presented him with the rope’s end (4.4). He proceeded to pile an entire length of rope into his expectant outstretched hands. The furious Antipholus set about him.

The scene was now set for Jonathan Slinger’s entry as Doctor Pinch. He perched in the lotus position on a trolley wheeled in by his assistants. Animated by an extreme sense of his own self-importance, Pinch wore a black outfit and held his gloved hands out at his sides like a stage magician about to perform a trick. Pinch descended from the trolley and pulled from it two car jump leads. He touched the leads together briefly to produce a shower of sparks. Pinch’s magical aura created an immediately link back to Slinger’s Prospero, making this a very clever piece of casting.

When the jump leads were applied to Antipholus he collapsed at the edge of the water in convulsions.

The Officer (Solomon Israel) tried to seize Antipholus, but Adriana grabbed him and twisted his arm behind his back, describing him as a “peevish officer” and forced him to relent.

Both Antipholus and Dromio were wrapped in black plastic, dumped one on top of the other on the trolley and wheeled away.

Sensing that the Courtesan was inappropriately dressed, Adriana pulled the woman’s skirt down to a more demure length.

The Syracusans burst in brandishing daggers prompting the others to run away screaming, including the Courtesan who hobbled off the stage in just one of her high heels.

Spray

Another reminder of the frequent executions in Ephesus came when the Duke arranged for Egeon to have his photo taken with a body wrapped in plastic, which was then hoisted up by the crane and unceremoniously dumped into the sea behind the set wall. Sparkling sprinkles flew into the air looking like a spray of water from the splash.

The argument between the Merchant (Amer Hlehel) and Antipholus about the chain descended into a fight (5.1). Antipholus drew his dagger but the Merchant outbladed him with a sword.

As Adriana and company arrived, the abbey setting was established when a statue of the Virgin Mary was flown across the set on the overhead crane. A neon cross illuminated the back of the set, identifying it as a building. The Syracusans fled through its doors to take refuge.

The Abbess (Cecilia Noble) appeared and argued with Adriana about the cause of her husband’s misbehaviour.

Adriana tried to force her way into the abbey. The Abbess closed the shutters over the door using a remote control. Used to getting her own way physically as we had already seen, Adriana tried to punch the Abbess. But she simply grasped Adriana’s fist in the palm of her hand and wrestled her to the ground with one arm. Everyone else, including the Officer, jumped out of her way.

The Duke entered while at the same time Egeon was hoisted in by the crane to dangle high above the stage. After Adriana’s account of the day’s events, the Duke recognised her and she nodded encouragingly at his recollections of her.

A messenger warned of the violent escape of the Ephesians and the Duke’s guards trained their weapons on the walkway. The Courtesan also had a gun she aimed in that direction.

The Ephesians entered with scorch marks on their clothing. Antipholus had blood on his head, and his hand was still bound to a chair which he dragged clumsily beside him. Antipholus’ different version of events sparked a confused argument that only ended when the Duke shot a handgun into the air shouting “Why, what an intricate impeach is this!”

When the Courtesan spoke, Adriana once again pulled the woman’s skirt hem lower.

Egeon finally spoke to say that he recognised someone who would pay his bail. This should not have made the audience laugh, but the peculiarity of his situation, speaking after so long a silence suspended in midair above events, was not exactly dignified.

The Abbess brought out the Syracusans, who unlike the Ephesians did recognise Egeon. The Duke’s guards, who still had their weapons trained on the Ephesians, swapped their aim to the newly appeared pair and then back again to the Ephesians. Their aim alternated confusedly between the two groups because they were unable to distinguish which was the real threat and thereby emphasised their similarity.

Emilia and Egeon met at the centre, while the others moved in a circle round them. All were reunited, but Ephesus Antipholus was obliged to hug his parents with the chair still attached to his arm. Luciana and Syracuse Antipholus held hands.

Angelo asked for the chain, but became sheepish after Ephesus Antipholus pointed out that he had been falsely arrested at his request.

But Ephesus Antipholus had his own sheepish moment when taking his leave of the Courtesan. He had to pause and choose his words carefully when saying “Thanks for my … good cheer”.

The two Dromios recognised each other’s visible birth marks. Then, working through a list of them, they paused in embarrassment when they reached the wart remarked on earlier.

Syracuse Dromio gestured with his hands to approximate the size of the “fat friend” he had met earlier. Ephesus Dromio, the more expert, moved his brother’s hands further apart to better approximate her dimensions.

They hugged and then held hands as the lights went down outside the house.

Conclusions

This play qualified for inclusion in the RSC’s shipwreck trilogy only because of the wreck that took place some thirty years in its backstory. Its ending, with reunited siblings, has a vague similarity with Twelfth Night.

But apart from that, there was no sense that this production shared a specific mood or theme with any of the others. It did, however, succeed in referencing the other productions in the shipwreck trilogy, chiefly in drawing a parallel between Slinger’s Dr Pinch and his Prospero.

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