The easy way to produce this, Shakespeare's shortest play, is to present it as a wild farce, where the inadequacies of the outlandishly implausible plot are masked by the frantic comings and goings. The problem with this approach is that some of the more extravagant puns tend to be swallowed up. It also tends to ignore the fact that the opening is really quite dark. Egeon's threatened execution sets a gloomy tone to the whole proceedings.
Straight away, we realise that Lynne Parker's production takes a different tack. Some moody music gives a film noir edge to the first scene - an excellent dark opening before the comedy begins.
But then the action cuts to an Ephesus that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Casablanca of Humphrey Bogart fame (with a coterie of dodgy merchants and sundry minor characters). This is in keeping with the spirit of the play, as Antipholus of Syracuse describes the place as “a town that is full of cozenage” and Parker's supporting cast are the sort of louche residents. Bell Helicopter's music really captures the change of mood – it s excellent throughout, never overwhelming and always enhancing the action.
Parker's a beautifully paced production, the interplay between the Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse particularly well handled. The scene where Dromio assigns a country to each bodily part is a case in point - Parker slows the action right down and over-emphasises each pun. Heavy handed? Perhaps, but at least it ensures that the entire audience gets every gag.
What is also effective is the way that the two sets of twins do not resemble each other in the way that they dress and speak. So many productions have them attired in exactly the same way - surely a coincidence too far?
David Tennant's Antipholus of Syracuse is a wonderfully timed performance, an almost Woosterish innocent abroad. As a nice contrast, Anthony Howell's twin is an obstreperous businessman, full of fury.
The two Dromios are equally delineated, each an adjunct to their master's character. The Syracusan one, suavely played by Ian Hughes is all smoothness and calm, a Jeeves to the Wooster. The Ephesus's Dromio, frantically played by Tom Smith, is a Manuel to his master's Basil Fawlty. There's also a lovely performance from Jacqueline Defferary as Luciana, scarcely able to believe that she is falling in love with someone whom she thinks is her brother-in-law.
This is excellent entertainment. The Comedy of Errors might be one of Shakespeare's lesser plays, but Parker has ensured that the sum is greater than the parts: a real tonic for these winter nights.
Note: The following review dates from this production's original Stratford in April 2000.
The Comedy of Errors may possibly be the first play Shakespeare wrote; it's certainly the shortest. Based on an ancient comedy by the Roman dramatist Plautus, it tells of the farcical confusions which ensue when identical twin brothers turn up in the same city. The brothers' servants are also identical twins so the opportunity for comic errors is boundless.
The young Shakespeare, who was still in his twenties when he penned this tale, handles the plot's complexity deftly. But that's about all there is to the play - plot. The characters are superficial and the relationships simple. This play has none of the darker depths, subtle characterisation and intense, agonising relationships of the later comedies like Twelfth Night. Its plot reminds you of PG Wodehouse and its action of a Whitehall farce, similarities strengthened by setting this production in the costumes of the 1930s.
Much of the play's early humour depends on word-play, which may have had them in stitches in the sixteenth century, but doesn't do much for a modern audience. Frankly, the first 45 minutes of this production is a bit tedious, though you have to admire the energy of the stalwart crew of actors, ably led by David Tennant as Antipholus of Syracuse, who work their socks off to the keep the audience interested.
The comedy of character and of situation has survived intact, however, and it's here Shakespeare comes into his own. The play bursts into hilarious life about ten minutes before the interval when Ian Hughes as Dromio of Syracuse uses a bit of crudely sexist dialogue to create a genuinely funny character which sends the audience happy to the bar - and ensures their return afterwards.
But director Lynne Parker clearly doesn't trust Shakespeare alone to keep the audience amused and introduces plenty of visual gags (like an hilarious sand dance by Jack Chissick) which have nothing to do with the play. She's probably right to do so, as the comedy of character is in short supply. Indeed, the only person the audience can empathise with is Paul Greenwood's Egeon, the twins' tragic father, who plays no part in the comic action.
Eventually it's the plot and the comedy of situation which saves this production. The last half-hour of the play is fast and very funny - a Shakespearean sit-com reminiscent of 'Allo 'Allo at its best. This has everything - slapstick and double-takes, a wondrous comic chase and a happy ending. If the whole play had been as good as its conclusion, it would have been a superb evening.
Personally, though, I expect more than 40 minutes of a two hour comedy to be funny, but the audience seemed happy enough. They roared with laughter and applause at the end. Either they had only a 30 minute memory-span, or they found the whole evening funnier than I did. But the customer is, I suppose, always right.