The Comedy Of Errors – March 2012

5/10 (preview)

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 21st March 2012

This has the potential to be a very good production, but as yet the cast still seem to be finding their feet. This was only the 5th preview (press night 25th April). The dialogue was far from clear, so although I know the play pretty well, I reckon I would be struggling to follow the plot if it was new to me (and assuming I hadn’t read the program notes). The two Dromios are both well matched and also well differentiated; each wore an ‘I ♥ ____’ T-shirt with either ‘Syracuse’ or ‘Ephesus’ on it. They were the best thing in this performance, but even their comic business was being lost at times by the excessive staging.

The set was very important in this production. Ephesus is a thriving international port in this play, so that’s where they’ve set it; a good choice overall, though it did make the domestic scenes a little difficult to stage. The front left walkway had been removed, and that corner of the stage had been given a glossy black finish, representing water, and lots of rubbish has been plastered on it, representing the detritus floating in many a modern harbour. Another puddle sat a bit further back from this, also with a rim of debris, and there were wooden crates, oil drums and those big white canvas-looking builders’ bags around the place. A crane track ran diagonally from back left to front right, and various items were lifted onto the stage by this means, including the Virgin Mary (I kid you not!).

The rest of the stage was covered with wooden floorboards; at the back these rose up from the stage, first in a short shallow ramp, then as a vertical backdrop with jagged edges, lower at the left where the crane was operating. Several sacks had been stuck on this upright floor, and there were two bollards near the top with ropes wrapped round them which disappeared up into the flies. It was an interesting perspective, suggesting a topsy-turvy world as well as being a clear reminder we were at a port. Behind this panel of floorboards we could see an old fashioned metal post that’s the upright for some structure or other; it had curved metalwork corners suggestive of Victorian architecture. [23/8/12: Since learned that this is a structure in the Roundhouse which can’t be moved, so they decided to incorporate it into the set in Stratford as well.] There was another panel behind that which looked like corrugated iron(?) but I couldn’t see it clearly enough to be sure. There were two obvious trapdoors in the shallow ramp and the vertical part at the back, while others were concealed below oil drums and crates. At the start, there was also a fish tank sitting in the middle of the stage.

So it was a pretty grim setting for such a light comedy, and with gloomy lighting as well making it harder to see what was going on, this wasn’t the brightest version of the play I’ve seen. The opening sequence can be a  very moving scene, with the Duke explaining to Egeon (and us) just how much trouble he’s in, and Egeon in turn telling the Duke (and us) the sad history of his life. This time it was both unpleasant and unclear. The lights went down, and when they came up Egeon was having his head dunked in the fish tank by an armed guard, while another guard directed the light and the Duke came on in his dressing gown using a microphone to broadcast his words over the tannoy system. He only used this for the first few lines and some others during this scene; the rest of the time he spoke normally, which was a shame, as I found I could hear him much better with the amplification.

Egeon’s head was dunked several times, and at first I felt this was unnecessary brutality – this is a comedy, after all. Then I considered that this was simply a way of showing the life and death risk that Egeon, his son Antipholus and his Dromio are all taking by coming to Ephesus. Fair enough, but this is still a comedy, and I found myself wondering if the current generation are perhaps becoming too desensitised to this sort of thing, as was discussed during the post-show for Marat/Sade. Anyway, when Egeon hesitated before telling his story, the guard dunked him again a couple of times, and by this time I had spotted the Duke’s hand gestures to the guard telling him when to raise and when to lower. He even looked as his watch once to time it – very callous. Once Egeon did get started, the dunking stopped, thank goodness, and there were some signs that his listeners were being affected by his tale, but only a few. The dialogue wasn’t clear, I had the Duke’s back to me for a fair chunk of this section, and only my knowledge of the play kept me going – I just wasn’t engaging with these characters at all for once.

Things improved with the arrival of the other two Syracusans, Antipholus and Dromio. As the tank was cleared, and Egeon was dragged off to search through the city for someone to bail him out, a crate was carried on by the crane and lowered down on the far side of the stage. A nervous-looking chap paid off one of the workers and lifted the lid using a crowbar. Out popped Antipholus and Dromio, clearly determined to get into Ephesus by any means available to them, while the merchant’s opening lines warning them of their danger were almost irrelevant given this staging. With Dromio dashing off to the Centaur and the merchant very eager to free himself from Antipholus’s handshake as quickly as he could, Antipholus of Syracuse was soon left alone on stage to comment on his situation. Again, the lines weren’t delivered well enough for me.

Before Dromio of Ephesus arrived, another crate opened up towards the back of the stage and a young chap came out of it. When he turned round and saw Antipholus, he froze for a moment; they regarded each other warily, and then the young man ran off. Illegal immigrants were clearly a problem in this Ephesus. I think this was where the woman came out as well, with her fake designer handbags and red tracksuits. There was some good humour in this; it was clearly a Mary Poppins crate, with more coming out than the crate could hold. After the woman ran off to sell her wares, the scene between Antipholus of Syracuse and Dromio of Ephesus was OK, and I found myself wondering how easy it was to follow this story if you didn’t know it at all, especially if the dialogue didn’t come across well. Dromio of Ephesus was very clear, mind you, and suffered a lot of physical abuse for it. I do hope they don’t get too many injuries during the run.

The next scene with Adriana and Luciana was staged on a hanging platform which was brought on by crane. With a post at each corner, it held a dining table and three chairs, as well as the two women. It was lowered to the ground at first, I think, but later on it was raised slightly. This meant that it swung around a bit, as well as leaning drunkenly depending on where the characters stood, and they even made it spin deliberately, just to add to the distraction. And it was a distraction; this was probably the least interesting Adriana and Luciana I’ve seen so far. Mind you, the weak delivery of the lines and bland characterisation didn’t help – I’m assuming this will change for the better with practice. To be fair, Steve did reckon the actresses looked nervous on their swinging perch, so perhaps that was behind the lack of depth to these portrayals – they certainly came across better when their feet were on solid ground.

With that scene over the platform was raised again and carted off while the action continued below. Again, this was pretty bland, and much of Dromio’s humorous dialogue was cut, sadly. With more beating of servant by master, there wasn’t much of the joshing relationship between this pair that we’ve seen before, which weakened the performance for me.

Adriana’s arrival and pleading to her husband was reasonably good, but ‘Plead you to me, fair dame?’ was followed too quickly by the next line, and the laugh was lost. I did like the way they shifted the scene to the front door of the house, though. A door was carried over by the crane and lowered down towards the back. The characters all went through this, with Dromio being hit twice by the door, once by Adriana and once by Antipholus. It was funny each time, and half the pleasure was the anticipation – we could see it coming a mile off.

Antipholus of Ephesus’s arrival with his friends was a strange affair, not so much because of their entrance but because a group of younger folk behind us were clearly finding a lot more humour in the performance than I was. Their laughter was inexplicable to me a lot of the time, and even got to the point where I felt I was watching a not very funny play and hearing canned laughter which was slightly out of sync with the action, an unusual and rather surreal experience. I did miss a few funny moments admittedly, such as Adriana’s reaction later on when her husband gave the ring back to the courtesan and thanked her for her hospitality – hope to pick that up next time around – but for the most part I reckon we just had different senses of humour. Anyway, Antipholus of Ephesus came on with his mates, singing a song, and that was that.

The door obligingly swung round a bit during the next bit so that we could see both Dromios as well as Nell, with her graphic vegetables. She was well padded, and took every opportunity to get up close and personal with her man, as she believed Dromio of Syracuse to be. Antipholus of Ephesus probably lost his temper – I know the play so he must have – and before he left with the others he took several runs at the door but it defeated him each time, finally leaving him prostrate on the ground.

After they left, Antipholus of Syracuse re-entered, doing up his shirt and trousers, although it wasn’t so clear this time how they came to be undone. Luciana followed him a few moments later to tell him off; I have no idea how the lines went, but she was only too ready to rush into his arms and kiss him a short while later so I guess it was business as usual. I was looking forward to the interval by this time. When Luciana left, the door rotated with her on the other side, so as it came round she was in front of it again. They played with this nicely; Luciana realised she was back in the same room as Antipholus, and after a bit of simpering she turned the door back round again. (It was pink on the reverse so we would know which side was which.)

Dromio of Syracuse’s description of Nell was so-so – again, the lack of a comedic relationship between master and servant didn’t help with this – and then he was sent off to find a ship they could leave on while Antipholus of Syracuse met up with the goldsmith and received the chain. When Antipholus suggested the goldsmith take his money then and there, he actually held out a banknote to him. I reckon it was nothing like the amount the chain cost, judging by the goldsmith’s reaction; he laughed indulgently and turned it down with the line “You are a merry man, sir”. After Antipholus’s final lines, the young man who had also emerged from a crate came on stage trying to get away from the guards, but they had him cornered. As they closed in, Antipholus was convinced they were going to catch him as well, but of course they thought he was their Antipholus. They surrounded the two men, arrested the young man, and included Antipholus in their group photo which ended the first half.

The second half began with an invented scene. The Duke, Egeon, some guards and the band entered on the right hand walkway, with the recording of the Duke’s earlier line about finding someone to help Egeon blaring out several times. The band was good musically, though they had a strange habit of turning up in all sorts of different costumes during the play. They were in dockers’ gear, including hard hats and Day-Glo vests, in S&M outfits, all in red tracksuits (the ones the woman had been selling) and one or two other costumes. I suppose they fitted in with whatever else was going on, but it didn’t add to the performance for me. Anyway, the guards hoisted up a dead body wrapped in black clingfilm – we could see a foot sticking out at the top of the parcel – and hooked it up to the crane. It was then taken towards the back, swinging slightly as these things do, and dropped off the dock behind the floorboards; there was a splashing sound and some glitter was thrown back over the boards to suggest water. Another reminder of the harshness of this regime and the high risk of death – they must think we’re incredibly stupid and/or have very short attention spans. I did think the body may have been that of the man they captured just before the interval, but if so his foot looked decidedly lighter in colour than the skin tone of the live man, so I don’t know if that was the intent. This extra bit didn’t really add anything for me.

The next scene proper had the merchant and the goldsmith entering with the officer – a menacing looking individual with a nasty looking stick – and the goldsmith was very keen to get his debt paid and avoid arrest. The scene unfolded in a pretty straightforward way, with Antipholus of Ephesus’s arrival, the arguments over who has the chain, etc., etc. I did enjoy Dromio of Syracuse’s entrance with a lifejacket and lifebuoy; he was so enthusiastic that we couldn’t help laughing at him.

For the scene between Adriana and Luciana, the platform came back with the fish tank on it, and Adriana was dunking Luciana in it, demanding to know what her ‘husband’ had said. This made more sense, and did at least give us some comic payoff from the opening scene. I noticed that the water level was much lower this time around, presumably so that Luciana’s hair didn’t get too wet. When Dromio of Syracuse turned up, they spun the platform round again, and got a little humour out of the way Dromio had to either run round with it to talk to Adriana, or stand still and speak to her every so often when she came around again. She also lashed out at him with her foot a few times when she came round. At the end of the scene, Adriana put her own face in the water as a sign of her dejection, also funny, but the bulk of the dialogue was lost again in the spinning.

For Antipholus of Syracuse’s next entrance, the band and everyone else were wearing the red tracksuits and showering him with gifts. When they left, Antipholus was standing on an oil drum which was on its side, so he had to balance on it as it gradually rolled a little backwards – an impressive feat. When his Dromio turned up with the money he’d got from Adriana, Dromio started off his questioning about the strangely absent officer by mouthing the words at first, which I enjoyed. Then he went through the long, roundabout descriptions, and finally Antipholus got his meaning; this was the first sign of some connection between these two. The courtesan arrived in a slinky short dress that left almost nothing to the imagination. Her posturing was also pretty graphic, although this wasn’t the coarsest Comedy I’ve seen by a long way. Dromio hid behind an oil drum during this scene, gesturing to Antipholus to run away from this she-devil, but as she was bending provocatively over another oil drum at the time, Antipholus was finding it hard to concentrate on anything else. Eventually Dromio tried to roll his oil drum at her to chase her off, but it had been specially flattened on one side and didn’t go very far. As Antipholus finally ran off, he threw her over it, another opportunity for injury, and as she got up she hissed in reply to Dromio’s parting words. I remember she took off a shoe – she was wearing very high heels – and threw it at somebody – don’t remember who – before saying her lines about going to Adriana and then limping off.

Antipholus of Ephesus, with his hands tied, assured the officer he wouldn’t try to run away, and then did just that a moment later. Poor fool, there was nowhere to run, and the officer had him in custody again almost immediately. Dromio of Ephesus’s entrance was good fun. He came in on the walkway trailing the rope behind him. As Antipholus stood there, Dromio pulled the rope through and piled it up in his arms; with more and more coming along it made a huge heap, almost obscuring Antipholus’s face. Dromio looked very pleased with himself, but he was soon unhappy again at his master’s anger.

Doctor Pinch’s arrival is something I usually dread, but this was one of the better versions of this scene. Jonathan Slinger gave us a camp gothic Pinch, with a crew of S&M attendants and a nasty pair of electrodes which he used whenever he could. The gleam of pleasure in his eye when he reckoned he had a madman to deal with was alarming, and Antipholus and Dromio were eventually bound in black clingfilm before being taken away on a trolley, accompanied by occasional prods with the electrodes.

Adriana was just sorting out the extent of Antipholus’s debts with the officer when the Syracusan pair arrived, and with this Antipholus brandishing a small knife, the rest ran off, afraid as much of their power to escape Pinch as the ‘sword’ itself. The meeting with the goldsmith and his creditor then followed, and this creditor had managed to conceal a considerably larger sword about his person which would have made the fight with Antipholus rather one-sided had Adriana and the rest not turned up to ‘recapture’ them.

This was when the Virgin Mary turned up. Rising above the boards at the back, her statue was brought forward by the crane. It also swung back and forth a bit, enough to make it funny rather than creepy. Everyone on stage stopped and looked at it, as did the audience. We also laughed. Then some angled doors lit up in the vertical ramp at the back; this was the abbey entrance which Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse escaped through – more laughter.

The abbess came out almost immediately, and in no time at all she had established who was boss. Adriana even tried to hit her, but the abbess grabbed her fist and squeezed, and in no time at all Adriana was on the floor, saying ‘ow’ and with a very sore hand. When the throng threatened to rush the doors, a metal panel slid shut behind them – one of the highest security abbeys I’ve ever seen – but it opened again to let the abbess back in. As she stormed past the characters on stage towards the back, they all got out of her way sharpish, including the officer, who jumped aside looking very alarmed – no way was he going to tangle with that woman!

For the Duke’s entrance, Egeon was brought on by the crane, suspended high up and dangling near the front of the stage. His feet were supported, but even so he was there for quite a long time before being lowered down. The Duke came on with his assistant and guards and they were very jumpy, brandishing their guns around as soon as look at you. The Duke took out his own gun and was pointing it at people when he wanted them to talk, though at first the scene started off amicably enough. Adriana made her plea for assistance, kneeling down to the Duke as she did so. Her servant arrived, and that was when guns were first drawn; the poor chap looked terrified, but then so did everyone else.

When Antipholus of Ephesus and his Dromio turned up, this Antipholus still had a chair attached to one arm by the clingfilm, and there were scorch marks all over his suit. He pleaded with the Duke for justice, everyone told their version of the story, and by the time the Duke sent for the abbess he was waving his gun around and making everyone even more jumpy. At this point Egeon spoke up, and got a good laugh at his lines – he was looking right down at Antipholus of Ephesus at that point. He was lowered to the stage and unhooked while his apparent son and servant disclaimed all knowledge of him, and then the abbess returned, heralding the arrival of the other two twins. I couldn’t see them at first from my angle, so I lost some of the effect of this bit, but they were soon in view for the (sniff) reunion scene.

The Dromios had been very well cast, and looked plausible as twins, as well as having similar comedic styles. The Antipholi (Antipholuses?) weren’t going to fool anybody, being at least six inches different in height, and although they were facially similar, the fact that one of them had a chair strapped to one arm would have surely made it a bit easier to tell which was which. Once again, nothing was made of the wonderful line by the abbess, or Emilia as we then knew her to be – “where is that son who floated with thee on the fatal raft?” There was a general tendency in this production to skip quickly over the text-based humour in favour of the physical stuff, but this really is a gem of a line requiring some reaction from the assembled throng. There was hugging and revelations and I sniffled (I really can’t help it), and then the abbess invited everyone into her place for a feast. When only the Dromios were left, they said their lines very touchingly, but before they exited, the flying Virgin came back again for a final swing across the stage. It got a good laugh, and was OK on that basis, but it did spoil the energy of the ending. This time, the lights simply went out and that was that.

There were some other bits of staging that went quite well, but I’ve forgotten exactly when they happened. Dromio of Ephesus used rap rhythms for a few of his lines to his own Antipholus, which he did very well. The Syracusan pair hid in oil drums at the back of the stage at one point, with Antipholus fitting nicely in his, and Dromio having to lift the drum up and hide his upper body while his legs showed below – good fun. He also ran off still holding the drum, another funny bit. There were enough of these good ideas to make the evening an OK experience, and to suggest that the production may be quite good once it’s worked in, but from my perspective they do need to work on the dialogue a lot more. A lot of the ensemble are making their RSC debuts, so perhaps the voice work they’ll do here will bring them on; it certainly helped a number in the very long ensemble that spanned the Courtyard/new RST period.

The two Dromios – Bruce Mackinnon, a very good Algernon in The Importance Of Being Earnest at the Rose recently, and Felix Hayes, very good as Snug the joiner in the recent RSC A Midsummer Night’s Dream – were the clear stars of this production, and I’m already looking forward to seeing them again in this and in their other roles. Nicholas Day did the best he could with Egeon’s part, but the staging didn’t do him any favours, and of the rest I enjoyed Jonathan Slinger’s Pinch, Sargon Yelda’s Angelo (the goldsmith) and Solomon Israel’s officer.

Almost forgot to mention – the noise of the crane as it moved back and forth was another distraction we could have done without; Steve noticed it more than I did.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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