March 31, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

The Comedy of Errors (Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory) @ The Tobacco Factory

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The Comedy of Errors is one of those few plays that fail to disappoint onstage. It’s inherently funny, fast, short and complex, and it’s hard to remove the basic entertainment value from it. However, the slew of Comedies I’ve seen over the last few years have shared what is, perhaps, a surprising feature – they’ve been extremely cruel. From the knockabout farce and chaos of Nancy Meckler’s RSC production, to the abbreviated insanity of the Young Person’s production, to the clowning of the Welsh School of Drama’s version and, finally, the brutal slapstick of Propeller’s recent triumph, performances have been marked by a speed and reactionary physicality that, while often illuminating, have perhaps tipped the production too far away from its potential for other readings. Specifically, these Errors’ have lacked heart.

Andrew Hilton’s new production for the Tobacco Factory redressed the balance considerably. Drawing apparent inspiration from Greg Doran’s recent Twelfth Night at the RSC, the production was set in the rough geographical location of the play (Ephesus = Turkey and the immediate Mediterranean surrounds) around the turn of the 18th/19th centuries. Locals such as Balthasar and Angelo wore fezes, while the colonial English wore regency dresses or waistcoat/jacket combinations. A violin and piano underscored scene changes marked by fades to black; women sat quietly reading; Ephesus itself was marked by an air of colonial civility and etiquette. It was a far cry from the mad farce that has come to mark productions of this play, instead creating a measured, elegiac atmosphere in which the characters were much more than caricatures, and the levels of farce in the play were differentiated rather than sustained at a single high pitch.

The production started perhaps too slowly, with mournful violin announcing the lights rising on a court scene. David Collins’s bedraggled and passive Egeon sat centrally before Paul Currier’s beurocratic Duke, while a secretary took notes. The Duke’s busy indifference balanced Egeon’s despair ideally, but left the character looking rather insignificant. His long tale, delivered as much to the audience surrounding the stage on four sides as to the Duke, was unfortunately dull, an expository sequence that carried little of the stated emotional impact. Egeon’s own lack of self-interest fed too far into the delivery, and even the Duke’s response spoke more of an awakening of interest rather than anything more powerful.

It took the company a long time to step up the pace from this dour opening. The Syracusians arrived straight from their boat, carrying suitcases and wearing long coats while Dromio (Richard Neale) sang sadly over the music. The establishment of atmosphere was effective, introducing the characters as civilised and generally polite. Dan Winter’s Antipholus took time to sit and listen in amusement to his servant’s jokes, while Dromio kept up a gentle, reverent patter that kept within the limits of their established relationship.

The first few lines of 3.1 were brought forward so that the Ephesian Antipholus and Dromio (Matthew Thomas and Gareth Kennerley) first entered with Angelo and Balthasar immediately after their Syracusian counterparts had left the stage for the first time, bringing out earlier the connections between the two sets of twins. There was a remarkable likeness between the siblings (the Antipholi were tall and wore dark beards; the Dromios were clean-shaven and bald, and a little shorter than their masters) who were only differentiated by slightly different shadings in their clothes, meaning that each appearance of a character was momentarily unsettling for the audience in the best possible way as they tried to work out who they were seeing. They were also surprisingly similar in character: the two Dromios were both plaintive complainers, easily upset by being struck but also prompt to forgive, delivering their jokes as wistful banter. The Antipholi were more clearly defined, though gradually grew more alike: Antipholus of Ephesus was more moody, oscillating between drunken shouting and a depressed attitude; and his more positive brother strode about the stage, interacting happily with people but becoming increasingly unsure as events conspired against him.

As the mistaken identities began to impact, the relationships began to slowly break down. The Dromios became more and more manic, running on and off stage and pre-emptively forestalling criticism by desperately blurting out their information and apologies. Meanwhile, each Antipholus grew more angry. In a neat piece of staging, Antipholus of Syracuse cuffed both Dromios round the ear in the exact same area of the stage in the early scenes, but with the second hit harder than the first, making explicit the shared confusion of the two Dromios and the growing ire of Antipholus. The relative calmness of the production made the violence more startling by contrast: later, Antipholus of Ephesus took the rope given to him by his Dromio, tied a knot in it and began mercilessly flogging the hapless servant, to winces from the audience.

The catalyst in the ongoing elevation of hysteria was Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s superlative Adriana. Even in her initial scene, sitting with a book in a high-backed chair while her bookish sister (Ffion Jolly) studied happily, she was chafing and shuffling, finally bursting out into frustration against her absent husband. Luciana’s role throughout was to attempt to restrain Adriana’s outbursts, but this meek, bespectacled girl had little sway over the far more formidable Adriana, who was barely restrained from punching the Ephesian Dromio in anger. She put on a hat and went out to seek Antipholus herself, and brooked no argument from the confused Syracusian whom she encountered, who obediently followed her home. However, an interpolated sequence saw the lights come up on Adriana, sitting and weeping, while an abashed Antipholus looked apologetically towards her; the implication was that he had refused her advances, and his professed affection for the shocked Luciana in the following scene made this clear. From this point on, Adriana’s behaviour was increasingly erratic, culminating in a breathless monologue delivered at high speed to a shocked Duke outside the nunnery which earned her a spontaneous round of applause.

The manners and sensibilities of the main cast were thus established and slowly broken down to great comic effect. Local colour was provided by Kate Kordel’s lively and wilful Courtesan, who flirted aggressively with Antipholus of Ephesus and, later, became firm over the point of her money and ring, flouncing and harumphing about the stage and exchanging slyly competitive glances with Adriana during their united assault on Antipholus. Alan Coveney’s Angelo was another high point, a weasel of a man with a fez, moustache and glasses. Intrusively jovial, he jabbed both Antipholi in the ribs repeatedly and ingratiated himself with his fellow merchants and workmen; yet when "wronged", betrayed a high-minded sensibility that insisted on being made reparation. One of the standout comedy sequences was the simple debate between he and Antipholus over which of them had the chain, a masterclass of mutual chagrin, rising annoyance and, finally, petty recrimination. Angelo’s abashed apologies as his mistakes became clear in the final scene were similarly entertaining.

Only in the doorknocking scene did a metatheatrical comic awareness influence the action. The two Dromios stood at either end of the space, with the empty square of the Tobacco Factory stage deliberately extending the thickness of the door; yet as the Syracusian Dromio spat at the Ephesian Dromio under the door, there was a time delay to the reaction as if the spittle had had to travel the several metres distance. Similarly, both Dromio and Antipholus knocked on thin air, accompanied by sound effects created by one of the other actors; but this culminated in the sound effect deliberately going beyond the number of mimed knocks, causing the actors to pause and look around in confusion. Elsewhere, however, the comedy was reliant on people acting in believable but amusing ways: Antipholus and his friends, for example, sang drunkenly in comically hushed voices before the former’s door, evoking a fun sense of manly camaraderie. Dromio’s description of Nell was a highlight, using arms and a foreboding voice to illustrate her girth and the terror he felt, which was suitably recaptured in subsequent references to her. Dr. Pinch, meanwhile, was a young man in a waistcoat and tails with a motley crew of assistants bearing straitjackets, into which they forced Antipholus. By this time, the Ephesian Antipholus’s patience was at an end, and he broke off flogging Dromio in order to pinch Pinch hard by the ear. His furious rant to the Duke earned a second smattering of applause, the character’s instability reaching its peak as he knelt to his lord.

The always-reliable final scene saw characters shrieking, complaining and generally behaving awfully as the multiple plots came together, over which Nicky Goldie’s formidable Abbess took control, ordering the reunions and provoking laughs as she revealed the final twist of being Egeon’s wife. There was a great deal of innocent comedy found in the reunions – Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, hugged his brother and sister-in-law with an enthusiasm that his brother didn’t quite share; and there was an almost tender moment as Antipholus of Ephesus finally paid the Courtesan for his entertainment, to Adriana’s glare. The two Dromios taking hands, however, provided a fittingly sweet conclusion to a lovely production that didn’t rock the boat or offer exciting new readings of Errors, but did restore some dignity to a play too often treated as straightforward farce, taking as its purpose the exploration of the reactions of real people to inexplicable events.

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