Comedy of Errors – March 2011

10/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Andrew Hilton

Company: Shakespeare At The Tobacco Factory

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: 31st March 2011

This was about as perfect as a production of this play could be. When we were chatting this afternoon to the mechanic who was changing our tyre (long story) about the Tobacco Factory and the news that it was to receive funding from the Arts Council, we commented that with such a basic space to work in, all they could do was put on the actual play. Tonight this came true in such an amazing way that I felt I was watching the piece for the first time. Many lines of dialogue were completely new to me, and although there had to be some cuts to bring it in at just over two hours including an interval, the main sacrifice was the comedy business added in by most productions, and none the worse for that. In fact, there were some classic pieces of business that had us all in stitches, but I’ll come to those later.

The set was, as usual, simple. Each pillar had a lantern hanging by it, and two of the pillars had bench seats, the ones along our diagonal. In the far corner was a piano, and music was provided by this and a violinist. There were solid wooden doors with studs in various entranceways, and the usual furnishings came on and off as needed, though the opening scene was unusually set in the Duke’s office, complete with desk, several chairs, and a secretary taking copious amounts of shorthand. Egeon’s tale was as moving as any I’ve seen, and the Duke’s reactions the most compassionate.

The introduction of Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio (A/S and D/S) was very well done. I hadn’t understood before the captain’s warning about the dangers to Syracusan merchants, and I was very aware this time that A/S’s confidence that his Dromio would never rob him, disappears very quickly under the slightest provocation. The rest of the introductory scenes worked very well, and it was not only clear who was who, but the characters themselves were beautifully drawn, from the seductive courtesan to the fawning goldsmith.

As the comic misunderstandings build through the first half, there were a couple of major laughs. Firstly, when Antipholus of Ephesus (A/E) tells his Dromio to knock on the door of his own house, the party are standing in the entranceway to our left, and Dromio simply mimes knocking on a door with sound effects being supplied from offstage. A/E takes over the knocking, and has several goes, but they include a (surely planned) mistake, with a knocking sound coming after A/E has finished. Both he and his friend look puzzled as to where this knocking sound could have come from, while the audience were all having a good laugh. The second occasion was D/S’s marvellous delivery of the line “Oh sir, I did not look so low”. Impossible to describe, sadly.

In the second half, we get the full set of characters, including the doctor, whose whitened face also caused much mirth when he commented that he could see A/E and D/E were mad by their white faces. The officer was wonderfully nervous about asserting his authority when A/E is being put in a straitjacket, and Adriana’s explanation to the Duke when she’s asking for redress was amazingly clear, given that she rushed through it at increasing speed. Of course, we know what’s happened, so it’s nice she didn’t dawdle, and they made good comic use of it as well.

Even though we have seen it all ourselves, I was very aware that the characters haven’t, and in particular, I recognised that A/E and D/E don’t actually know they have twin brothers, hence their confusion. Of course, there’s no excuse for the other two, whose whole trip is ostensibly to find the missing twins, but then we wouldn’t have the comedy if they weren’t incredibly slow on the uptake. So for this production, in the closing scenes, A/S is hugging everybody with great enthusiasm, while A/E is a bit wary at first. He does, after all, have to come to terms with a new father, new brother, new mother, and a twin to his servant. It worked very well, and by their final exit, he was ready to put his arm round his brother and head for the feast.

Two more pieces of staging really stood out for me, both in the final scene. One was when A/S, now revealed as a single man, approaches Luciana to reaffirm his earlier protestations of love. He had to hold it for a good long while though, as Luciana, with impeccable comic timing, had grasped the situation and whipped off her spinsterish spectacles before you could say ‘Specsavers’! The other thing I liked, especially as I was very moist about the eyes by this time (reunion scenes always affect me that way), was that the Abbess was herself in tears, tears of joy as she welcomed the family she thought lost so many years ago. Of course, she’s the one who passed on the thick-as-two-short-planks gene to A/S. We know this, because despite the most obvious appearance in front of her of two sets of twins, she seems genuinely perplexed by the question of what happened to her Antipholus and Dromio! Get a grip, woman. Still, it all adds to the fun.

There were also a couple of songs in this production, which I don’t remember from earlier versions. Each Dromio sings one, D/S when he and his Antipholus first arrive at Ephesus, and the other by D/E (assisted by his brother) at the start of the second half. With the concentration on dialogue, both Dromios came across as more witty than normal, and I could really see what A/S meant about how his Dromio cheered him up when he was a bit moody. All of the characters came across as more 3-D in fact, with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points. Adriana is certainly too shrewish, but her jealously is not delusional. Luciana was played as a prim spinster, and I suspect Adriana’s point about how Luciana would complain just as much if she had the same experiences, was totally valid. The casting was good, too, with both sets of twins having a strong resemblance.

This was an absolutely classic version of this play, which I’m very glad we got here in time to see.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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