The Comedy of Errors is one of those plays that comes round relatively rarely in Shakespeare terms. It’s hard to see why: there’s more knockabout comedy than there is in many other of the bard's plays. Possibly, it’s the preposterous nature of the plot that makes it less popular with directors. The continual problem that they have to solve is how Antipholus of Syracuse doesn't fathom that he's being confused with his twin; it’s not as if he’s unaware of his brother’s existence, but the thought doesn’t appear to enter his head.
It’s a gaping hole in the plot, but Nancy Meckler’s spirited production certainly does its best to distract us from such inconsistencies in the story. The pantomime atmosphere that she engenders ensures that the evening is hugely entertaining.
If anything, the production is a little too heavy-handed; Meckler doesn’t miss any piece of business, sometimes a little too frenetically. Shakespeare drives the action forward relentlessly and needs few gimmicks.
There’s a spectacularly funny turn by Jonathan Slinger as Dromio of Syracuse. His description of the kitchen maid who is ardently pursuing him is a highlight of the evening; the look on his face when he says “she sweats” will be long-remembered. He’s well-matched by Forbes Masson’s Dromio of Ephesus. The pair of them provide the best of the comic moments.
Christopher Colquhoun and Joe Dixon as the two Antipholuses (of Syracuse and Ephesus respectively) provide plenty more opportunities for laughs, although there’s a hidden rage in Dixon’s portrayal that masks some of the humour. While the Ephesus Antipholus is normally presented as a baffled dupe, it's perhaps more realistic to imagine him as furious.
It’s always good to see this play, particularly in London, its spiritual home (when Shakespeare says “the town is full of cozenage ...and many such liberties of sin”, we all know that he’s not really talking about Ephesus). While this might not be a classic production, it’s certainly a fun one.
- Maxwell Cooter
Note: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from July 2005 and this production's earlier Stratford run.
"How do you stage this conglomeration of improbabilities", an exasperated Stratford theatregoer is recorded as asking. Two possibilities present themselves: a darker exploration of the contingency of identity, such as offered by Bristol Old Vic two years ago; or all-ahead, knockabout farce.
Nancy Meckler, artistic director of Shared Experience, (making a return visit after last year's acclaimed House of Desires), opts very firmly for the latter, throwing in not just the kitchen sink, but the bath, the bidet and all the fittings.
This is comedy at its broadest, Meckler and ensemble milking the text for maximum laughs and then adding lashings of tomfoolery for good measure. And it all makes for a very enjoyable evening with a real pantomime feel.
Critics would have to concede that the play, one of Shakespeare's earliest, is worlds away from the writing of sophisticated later comedies such as As You Like It, Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night's Dream. Adapting an existing plot about a pair of identical twins, Shakespeare added a second to maximise the possibilities of comic confusion, adding and adapting in addition another existing plot about a wife who mistakes her brother-in-law for her husband.
Antipholus of Syracuse arrives in Ephesus with his manservant Dromio, in search of his long-lost brother, who is confusingly also called Antipholus and also has a manservant called Dromio, unaware that his brother and his respective servant have been living in the city all these years after being rescued from a shipwreck.
Designer Katrina Lindsay brings a real sense of style and colour to proceedings with costumes and props which suggest Dickensian London. The stage teems with the hustle and bustle of entrances and exits. A pickpocket and a quack doctor ply their trade, while a ragamuffin band on stage throughout accompany a series of (non-Shakespearean) songs which punctuate the production.
There are times when the production strives too hard, for example in the opening scene when puppets are used to bring to life the shipwreck of the two pairs of twins. A comedy of errors, then, but one which offers plenty of easy enjoyment.