Ephesus is a dark, dangerous and violent place in Amir Nizar Zuabi’s foreboding and forbidding new production of one of Shakespeare’s sunniest plays. Death is a constant threat and the authorities are happy to indulge in various forms of torture in order to assert their control.
Despite the abundant humour this is a bleaker interpretation than one might expect and there are some abrupt tonal shifts (particularly in the scenes with the Duke) which sit rather uneasily with the text.
The set (Jon Bausor) and lighting (Jon Clark) work well to reinforce the industrial setting with particularly inventive use of a crane mechanism to effect some key scene changes. The stage sits on top of a tank of water adding another element of danger to the proceedings, creating some vivid stage pictures and strongly evoking the dockside feel
If only the work on the text had been as strong as the design.
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakepeare's shorter plays and so it is a particular shame that delivery of the lines is so rushed as to make the words almost impossible to understand. Breathless urgency is sometimes achieved at the expense of clarity and while the production makes good use of physical comedy (sometimes uncomfortably violent) more focus on mining the comic potential of Shakespeare’s lines might have been wise.
There are some strong characterisations. Both Dromios (Felix Hayes and Bruce Mackinnon) rapidly win the audience over with their bright and lively portrayals. The Antipholus twins (Stephen Hagan and Jonathan McGuinness) are well differentiated yet firmly establish themselves as identical individuals.
This is certainly not the funniest production of The Comedy of Errors I have seen. The Royal Shakespeare Company is keen that the three plays being presented under the Shakespeare's shipwreck trilogy umbrella of “What Country Friends Is This?" (the others are Twelfth Night and The Tempest) be viewed together and perhaps the darker tone of this production makes more sense in that context.
But viewed alone this challenging and bold interpretation in only a partial success.