The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s purest farce, its galloping lunacy not deepened by the emotional sub-text of later, greater plays. Aegeon, the merchant of Syracuse condemned to death because his search for his son has taken him to the forbidden territory of Ephesus, begins the play with a noble tale of suffering, but after 10 minutes he is forgotten until the splendidly unlikely denouement. Essentially the play is about all the silly things that can happen to you if you arrive in a town where a long-term resident looks just like you and has the same name – and the same goes for the servants. Martinu would have made a dream opera of it; more earthily, Shakespeare prefers a crazy farce.
The essentials of a successful Comedy of Errors are pace, wit, precision and invention. Edward Hall’s production for Propeller, embarking on a six-month, five-country tour, has all these and is distinguished from the typical Comedy of Errors by two features. As always with Propeller, the cast is all-male. This is not done by picking beardless boys for the female parts; the other play on tour, Richard III, uses quite different actors in the cross-gender roles. So Robert Hands, striding manfully on his high heels, power-dressed in aggressively male-female mode, supplies a fiercely funny masculine commentary on the termagant wife. Even more interesting is David Newman, the demurely gentle sister with the instant power of a Martial Arts expert!
The second feature is the atmosphere of fiesta that permeates the whole evening. Long before curtain, football-shirt-clad drifters fill the square of a little Spanish town with music, while assorted layabouts accost the audience. Every time an actor is not in character, he reverts to this ensemble, supplying sound effects, music and an active audience for the characters. And this goes on into the interval, the cast singing for charity on the Circle stairs.
The production style owes much to cartoon and circus, the latter reflected in Michael Pavenka’s colourful costumes and set. This is essentially an ensemble piece, but Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Sam Swainsbury play the Antipholus twins with a light touch and impeccable timing, while the excellent Dromios are Richard Frame (wonderfully manic in the Greasy Nell speeches) and Jon Trenchard (who also contributes the wholly effective musical arrangements). And what of Dr. Pinch? These days the part is, seemingly inevitably, developed into a music-hall turn and Tony Bell’s hell-fire preacher from the Mid-West (of Lancashire) is definitely one of the more engaging.