William Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors was described by BLT as “Shakespeare as you have never seen it before” – a bold claim indeed, and one that certainly stood up to scrutiny, though the end result was not one for the Shakespeare purists. Hilary Cordery’s production gave us a vision of The Comedy of Errors as a bawdy restoration-style comedy; a cross between pantomime (apt as this was the last production before Christmas) and Benny Hill. The only thing missing was Frankie Howerd (although I detected a few moments in this production of which he would undoubtedly be proud).
The set, designed by Jan Greenhough, was a utilitarian design with suggestions of the main house, The Porpentine and the Abbey underpinned by exposed scaffolding and dominated by a huge clock on the back wall over the town square – in other words, Borough Market. I thought the set worked perfectly.
The play moves swiftly between locations, and the set allowed the movement between the scenes and locations without any undue interruption in proceedings. There was some fine attention to detail too, some of which was not obvious to the casual viewer. I particularly liked the fact that the white streak down the centre of the floor narrowed as it went deeper onto the stage and met with the bottom of the A-frame ladder forming an almost perfect arrow pointing at the clock as it counted the hours away to the ‘inevitable’ execution of Egeon.
The play opens with poor Egeon searching for his long-lost sons and ending up in Ephesus; a land in which, as a Syracusan, he is unwelcome. Having set foot there and been captured, he is sentenced to death by Duke Solinus as the law dictates. As the Duke, Christopher Cullen gave us a man of absolute authority in the style of a mafia Don and the moments where he demonstrated his power among his townsfolk were well executed. His compassion on hearing Egeon’s tragic story was also heartfelt while not diminishing his authority. Egeon is the tragic hero and has, in my view, the most beautiful passages of Shakespearean language in the whole play. I am often disappointed that we don’t get to see more of the character until the very end of the play – and then his language is more prosaic. Rob Widdicombe was sensational in this difficult, and almost out of place, role. His telling of the story of the birth of his sons (and their twin companions), the shipwreck, the loss, the search and his final arrival at Ephesus was extraordinarily moving. The variations in pitch, pace and poetry was a masterclass in the delivery of Shakespearean language.
When Egeon was sent on his way to find his sons or to arrange for payment of the fine that could save his life, the tone of the play changed and the comedy began in earnest. This was high-energy, high-octane comedy full of misunderstanding, misdirection, confusion and misadventure in true Whitehall Farce tradition. Egeon’s twin sons, Antipholus of Ephesus and Syracuse respectively, and their twin servants, Dromio, are mistaken for each other; even the masters mistake their own servants, and the interplay between the four actors (Fergus Macdonald, Joe Dominic, Gavin Dyer and Richard Stewart) was very convincing. These four characters are the lynchpin of the whole play and it is essential that we, the audience, believe that they could be mistaken for each other by the other characters (including Antipholus’s wife, Adriana) and I felt that these four actors were well cast and believable in their roles.
Holly Wilson, as Adriana, played (in this version) the vampish, almost nymphomaniac, wife of the hometown Antipholus. Playing her in this way creates complications when it becomes obvious that she has been – how shall we say it – intimate with the other Antipholus, and yet no one reacts to this other than her at the end of the play. That said, Holly was very good as the vixen although at times her delivery was just too quick. I accept that her explanation of her plight to the Duke at the end was done deliberately fast and was intentionally unintelligible – the meaning being translated in the accompanying mime – but there were other times where we lost some of what was being said, and that was a great shame.
As her sister Luciana, Sarah Kidney gave us the complete opposite of Adriana as the prim, naïve, repressed goody two shoes. She was very reminiscent of Alice, complete with the long blonde hair, blue patterned dress and white stockings. I half expected her to produce a magic shrinking potion from her pocket. The way she handled her conflicting emotions when the ‘other’ Antipholus professed his love to her was very funny.
Unfortunately, space prevents me from mentioning all the cast in such a large production, but among the rest I must just pick out Omar Alexander-Kayn as the over-the-top, Julian Clary-style, camp goldsmith, Angelo. He picked out moments of humour in this role that I had never seen before and I enjoyed those moments immensely.
There are a number of problems with playing The Comedy of Errors in this way, and one of those is pace. From the moment Antipholus of Syracuse appeared, the play was full of energy right up until the moment that the Abbess comes forth to speak to Adriana and the Duke. This is necessarily slow because of the language and who is speaking, but the effect is to bring the show to a sudden, shuddering halt. The extreme change of pace is at odds with the rest of the play and it made the ending curiously out of kilter and innocuous.
The other problem lies with the actors. To keep up this pace and frenetic activity requires an extraordinary control from them, and, while the first half was manageable, as an audience member, I felt that by the end of the play I had spent two hours being shouted at. The energy level can still be high, but moderation of voice is the key to avoiding this and I felt that some of the actors got swept up in the excitement and lost a bit of that necessary self-control.
The backstage support in a production of this type is essential and the sound and lighting design by Simon Tyrell-Lewis and Emma Christmas respectively were very well done and complemented the overall atmosphere of the play.
This was a brave interpretation of The Comedy of Errors and Hilary Cordery should be congratulated for daring to be different and for pulling this show together. For me, an old traditionalist, it was a step too far – though I appeared to be in the minority as the audience around me certainly seemed to enjoy the show.