February 10, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Comedy of Errors (Propeller) @ The Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

A roar of dissent rose in the foyer of the Belgrade Theatre during the interval of last night’s Comedy of Errors, as the tannoy politely requested that audience members resume their seats for the second half. The roar came, however, not from reluctant audiences, but from the theatre company themselves. The men of Propeller had followed the audience out into the foyer and begun an impromptu charity concert with Mexican/Latin-inflected versions of Material Girl, Billie Jean and other ’80’s standards. With the audience singing and clapping along, the company were reluctant to end the party, and Chris Myles cried "They can’t start while we’re out here!" The second half eventually started some fifteen minutes late.

Much has been written on the idea of ensemble in contemporary Shakespearean theatre, but few companies embody the spirit of ensemble theatre-making to the extent that Propeller does. As the wonderful interval concert proved, this was a group of individuals who the audience wanted to spend time with, and whose shared creativity and enthusiasm informed every aspect of their performed presence – many faces were familiar from the last few years of the company’s history. Writing and performing the music as a company, setting up each other’s jokes and set-pieces and displaying a physical comfort and familiarity with each other’s bodies that allowed for precise, hysterical comedy, Comedy allowed the true strengths of ensemble to be fully-realised.

Despite the pre-show melee of actors strolling through the audience in sombreros and football shirts (creating an extremely loose eighties central American setting), Edward Hall’s production began bravely with a sober, visually-sparse introductory scene. Richard Clothier’s Duke, wearing a red sequinned suit and carrying a pistol as the local private authority (with the police in his pay), escorted John Dougall’s chained and bedraggled Aegeon onto the darkened stage. Dougall delivered his account of his past sorrows with no visual aids, articulating his woes clearly with simple vocal expression, captivating both his onstage and offstage audiences. The only exception was the appearance of the Antipholi and Dromios at an above window, waving as their names were mentioned. The decision to restrain the company’s naturally visual and physical storytelling made a clear statement – that despite the ensuing chaos, this was a production rooted firmly in text and clarity.

While the two hours of performance gradually descended into an increasingly chaotic melange of images, noises and words, this was no chaotic farce. The multiple sensory inputs were drawn directly from text with the purpose of clarifying the wit of the text; but then these devices developed their own meta-language and became a source of humour in their own right. Thus, when the subplot of the chain was first introduced, a member of the onstage band (formed from whichever actors were not directly involved in the scene) tapped a xylophone. This gave an audible anchor to the convoluted discussions of the chain’s circulation that clarified sense. As the mentions of the chain repeated exponentially in frequency, however, the repeated sounding of the xylophone took on its own comedic associations, a frenetic pointer to a comic verbal motif. Eventually, the ringing became so much a part of the text that Antipholus of Ephesus (Sam Swainsbury), in his final chaotic attempts to explain the day’s events to the Duke, screamed "DING!" every time he said "chain". The extra-textual pointer became its own textual joke. Similarly, a duck call accompanied the loping steps of Dominic Tighe’s Italian officer, speeding up or slowing down according to the pace of Tighe’s stride. Rather than throw in cheap laughs, the company built up an intermediate level of performative language, doubling the effect of the text.

As such, the work that the actors did was, from the start, self-consciously theatrical. Characters did not relate to one another as "real" characters, but instead performed their speeches as set-pieces which were interwoven into the performative text rather than the plot, focussing on plateau rather than locus (to use Robert Weimann’s terms). This was entirely appropriate to a play in which so much of the dialogue consists of attempts to explain actions that have previously taken place. Speeches were delivered quickly, but articulated with a fast series of accompanying gestures that physicalised the reported action, and often blurred into the action of the moment; thus, both Dromios relieved their beatings, and in doing so went through the motions of being beaten again. Again, the doubling of action was entirely appropriate to a play that foregrounds the process of doubling so prominently.

This had two effects. Firstly, the wit of Comedy of Errors itself came out strongly – rather than use the physical action as a substitute for the comedic effect of the words, action here enhanced Shakespeare’s jokes and metaphors. This was most apparent in Richard Frame’s phenomenal delivery of  the Nell dialogue. The Syracusian twins stepped forward, out of the "reality" of their scene, and Frame used his body and the stage to create a vivid image of the gargantuan kitchen wench: he walked from wing to wing to illustrate her girth; he extended his arms and rotated them for her height and width, then gazed wide-eyed at the sphere he had just traced in the air; and he performed the effects of her breath, boils and eyes, creating an horrific imagined space which she inhabited. All later references to her gained in impact from this impressive establishing vignette, both Dromio and audience shuddering at the memory of Nell.

The second effect was to licence an extraordinary level of comic violence that became a commentary upon itself. Accompanied by its amusing score of cues, actors poked one another in the eye, kicked each other’s backsides and slapped one another viciously. Within this cartoonish aesthetic, however, the company were able to push the violence to extremes which caused the audience to quail: David Newman’s Luciana, a frump in pince-nez spectacles, frilly skirt and handbag, displayed a growing range of martial arts skills that culminated in the revelation of a pair of nunchucks, but more effective was the violence practiced on Jon Trenchard’s diminutive Dromio of Ephesus. A cry went up from the audience as he was struck hard with a crowbar by his master, throwing the violence into perspective. Even more impressively, at one point the action froze as Antipholus prepared to floor him with a particularly hideous blow. Trenchard came forward and began his "I am an ass indeed" speech as a soliloquy to the audience. Sobbing, and to the accompaniment of a violin, he elicited sympathetic moans from the audience, before trudging back into position with wistful glances back at the auditorium. Steeling himself, he closed his eyes, and the action resumed with him being thrown onto his back. By establishing a point of sympathy, the production found its heart. The closing moments between the two Dromios were genuinely affecting, as Dromio of Ephesus reached out to his brother and took his hand, no longer alone in his victimisation. The point was not heavy-handed, but cut through the physical farce to make a plea for human feeling.

The other moment of extraordinary brilliance was the presentation of Dr. Pinch by Tony Bell. When announced, the rumble of a Hammond organ was heard, and smoke billowed from the upstage entrance. A silhouette appeared in the smoke, which then turned into the hacking figure of a bluff Yorkshireman in sharp suit and wearing a large cross. This Pinch, the conjurer, was a TV evangelist – he ‘zapped’ the Ephesians, who began praising the lord, and a choir of men with angel’s wings followed him in. Bell performed an entire song and dance routine, breaking up his words with requests for donations, the exorcism of an audience member and the stripping-down of himself to vest and trousers. Robert Hands, as Adriana, threw herself on her knees before him, entering her credit card details into a handy machine as she pleaded for him to exorcise her husband. In return, Antipholus stood unmoved as Pinch attempted to zap him, before appropriating Pinch’s performance for himself and zapping him in return before fleeing the stage.

Bell’s use of local references further served to endear him to the audience, referring to Lady Godiva and the local shopping centre. Even more funnily, an entire routine was built in riffing on the Coventry woman who last year put a cat into a wheelie bin – to arrest Dromio and Antipholus, two wheelie bins were brought in and the "madmen" were placed in them, emitting pitiful miaows as they disappeared from view. Bell’s comic performance – which he undercut himself with muttered "buggers" as he fumbled over his lines – was topped with a final appearance following the escape of his prisoners – he emerged fully naked and ran through the auditorium, a burning sparkler clenched between his buttocks. The audience barely recovered, and the subsequent appearance of Chris Myles’s Aemilia in nun’s habit, fishnet stockings, high heels didn’t help. Brandishing a riding crop as she talked of the necessity of more disciplined punishment, she dramaturgically served as the climax of the insanity, the rest of the cast falling at her feet as the doors of her nunnery flew open.

The women posed a different set of problems which I don’t have the space to explore here; but essentially, their overt sexualisation acted to reinforce male fantasies of (alternately) dominance and hen-pecking, but in a parodic format designed to critique those generalisations. Kelsey Brookfield’s Courtesan sashayed onstage in black PVC and bunny ears, before dropping his voice to a husky "Alright?" Luciana, as already mentioned, gradually unveiled a terrifying violence that saw the men fleeing from her, and Hands’s Adriana was a sublime blend of feminine chagrin and tempestuous shrew – by the end of the play, she was reduced to pounding on the floor and screaming for justice. Her complete lack of humour allowed her to serve as the foil for the comedy, stereotyping her in the sitcom-lite role of the nagging wife, while allowing Hands to mine the possibilities of that type for full comic effect.

Amid the violence, the spittle (all the Ephesians spat at the mention of Syracuse, and in one scene communally did so on the head of the diminutive Wayne Cater as Balthasar), the fast talking and the frenetic action, this was a production with heart. The sobriety of Aegeon’s plight, the gentle pleas of Dromio of Ephesus, the serenading of a girl in the front row by the Officer, Luciana’s instinctive presentation of her hand to Antipholus of Syracuse (she clearly never having been given this kind of attention before) all emerged from the familial warmth of the ensemble. The cruelty and crudity of the broader humour threw these moments into relief, making a case for calm and human feeling amid a flurry of panicked action. It was a perfect marriage of play and company, and a new high standard for Propeller’s work.

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