July 12, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Comedy of Errors (RSC Young People’s Shakespeare) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Since the launch of the "Stand Up For Shakespeare" manifesto a couple of years ago, the RSC has been remarkably tenacious in promoting its educational work alongside its core productions. While always an important part of the company’s remit, the Education Department has recently stepped confidently into the limelight, with events such as the Regional Schools’ Celebration sharing the main stage and being opened up to the general public.

The Comedy of Errors acted as the next logical step in raising the Education Department’s profile, representing the most sustained collaboration yet between the Education and Production teams. Cross-cast with the main house production of As You Like It, Errors was designed specifically as a first-time introduction to Shakespeare, designed for children and primarily touring local schools. By granting it a few performances on the Courtyard stage as well, however, the company acknowledged the status of this production – this wasn’t a fringe production, but an important part of the RSC’s current work – and was rewarded with the wonderful sight of a Courtyard theatre packed out with families and children.

The involvement of Paul Hunter of Told by an Idiot served to help liberate the production from any traces of the RSC ‘house style’, and the cast in particular seemed to particularly relish the freedom to let their hair down. Christine Entwistle set the tone early on during Egeon’s story: spraying the audience with water, adlibbing commentary on the action and joining in the dumbshow of the shipwreck as a cacklingly evil rock, Entwistle seemed intent on having as good a time as possible, and her infectious enthusiasm was shared by the rest of the cast. From Sophie Russell’s tap-dancing Abbess to James Tucker playing the spoons, the right to be ridiculous was fully embraced in a chaotic mish-mash of ideas and jokes.

The small-scale set consisted of a single raised platform in the centre of the main stage, and some fairy lights draped from posts. Most of the ensemble stayed on stage throughout providing live musical accompaniment, giving the production a home-made, informal feel. Iain Johnstone’s music was one of the production’s main strengths; played on a variety of jazz and improvised instruments (the play opened with one of the Dromios using a toast rack as percussion), the cast provided both underscore and some big musical numbers, including the showstopping "The Man is Mad", sung by the Courtesan with a backing chorus of finger-clicking, shades-wearing crooners.

The opening scene was treated with a little more seriousness, David Carr’s Egeon a suitably sober figure as he explained himself to James Traherne’s Solinus. Even here, though, the prisoner was kept in a fridge and a hooded executioner asked Egeon to hold the axe while he grabbed a beer. Aware, perhaps, that the dual mistaken-identity plot is confusing enough for adults to follow, let alone a young audience, an accompanying dumbshow was played out in detail, dramatising the birth of both sets of twins and their later shipwreck. Gary Owen’s edited text was notably efficient here, keeping only what was necessary in order to establish the characters and their separation, while simultaneously going all out for slapstick laughs.

The exposition out of the way, the chaos of the main action began. Owen’s script was mostly Shakespearean, but with a good deal of freedom for adlibbing allowed. Thus James Tucker’s Antipholus of Ephesus, entering with Balthazar and Angelo, chatted about his spoon collection and decided that the people sitting around in the Courtyard must be involved in some kind of protest, and Jonjo O’Neill’s Dromio of Syracuse, when sent to Adriana for money, announced he was looking for the house with the see-through walls before turning to see Adriana and Luciana on the other side of the stage. This informal, self-aware approach was effective throughout in keeping the audience engaged as the play grew increasingly bizarre; whenever the play was in danger of becoming too weird, the cast simply referred back to the audience. The largest round of applause was reserved for a young boy drawn out of the audience as Dromio fled the hideous Nell; dressing the boy in his hat and jacket, Dromio placed him on stage to distract Nell while he made a quick getaway.

While the children in the audience laughed loudest at the physical comedy, including plenty of gratuitous water-squirting, the adults enjoyed the numerous parodies, from Nell’s screams of "Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?" to Traherne’s moustachioed French inspector modelled on Poirot, from Luciana’s obsession with Eastenders to a slow-motion gunfight (without guns!) as the Syracusan twins escaped into Emilia’s abbey. At times there were almost too many jokes crammed in, with good lines being lost in the hysterical reaction to the previous incident. However, this was a committedly visual and physical production; the jokes were secondary to the slapstick comedy and inventive set pieces. One ingenious sequence, as the citizens explained the action of the previous five acts to Solinus, saw the entire play re-enacted as a puppet show with kitchen utensils; a simple argument between Antipholus and Angelo over the chain saw their increasingly exaggerated movements develop into a dance-off; and another argument between the Syracusan twins turned into a mimed tennis match, with another cast member providing voice-over umpire judgments.

The hilarity occasionally overwhelmed the narrative, though the adaptation did an effective job of keeping the play roughly on track. The trope of mistaken identity was memorably established early on: Antipholus of Ephesus revelled with the citizens, entertaining them with his magnificent spoon-playing, before leaving to their disappointment. As he left the stage, Antipholus of Syracuse entered at the other side. After a quick double-take, the citizens’ frowns turned to cheers and they threw the spoons to the newcomer to continue their party. Antipholus, however, cheerfully thanked them for the present and popped them in his pocket, provoking a sulky response from his ‘friends’. Vignettes like this ensured that the fundamentals of the plot were kept alive in the audience’s minds, allowing the production to continue down its own chaotic path.

The venue itself wasn’t always kind to the production. One scene called for the cast to chase each other around the auditorium, Keystone Cops-style, but the scale of the theatre and the barriers behind the seating meant that they actually disappeared out of view instead, leaving the stage bare instead of full of energy. Despite the fact that a production designed for school halls was being performed in a 1000-seat theatre, however, the cast did a stirling job of creating an intimate environment, directly engaging with their audience at every opportunity.

To attempt to give more of a sense of the play’s humour would be to do it a disservice, for this was an intensely alive piece of theatre, richly detailed and relentlessly energetic. The performances were uniformly outstanding: generous, inventive, good-humoured and entirely shameless, in the best possible sense. If I had a complaint, it would have been that neither play nor production allowed for a great deal of depth beyond the simple entertainment value. As a family show, it was absolutely perfectly-pitched; as an education piece for taking into schools, it didn’t seem to offer much of an opening for discussion or further exploration. However, as a first introduction to Shakespeare, it perfectly managed the task of demonstrating that the plays are there to be enjoyed by all ages and abilities, and in that sense this Errors was a resounding success.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review