August 11, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

The Comedy of Errors (Pendley Shakespeare Festival) @ Pendley Manor

The Pendley Shakespeare Festival is one of the grandest exemplars of the British tradition for summer amateur Shakespeare performed outdoors. Now in its sixty-fifth year, the Festival boasts an extraordinarily beautiful setting in the grounds of a 4* hotel that also plays host to a flock of peacocks, covered seating stands for some 400 audience members, and an ensemble bringing together local Festival veterans and professional and training actors from around the country. In addition, I attended this year as the guinea pig for a new series of ‘Pendley Plus’ educational events around the fringes of the Festival. An event on this scale pays tribute to the seriousness accorded to ‘amateur’ summer Shakespeare.

As Sarah Perry’s exhilarating production of The Comedy of Errors demonstrated, however, the key to the Festival’s success is the shared spirit of ensemble and audience in celebrating the occasion. Rarely have I seen a group of actors so clearly enjoying themselves, or an audience laughing quite so raucously at that enjoyment. Against the lawn, hedges and stone steps that form the permanent stage Lucy Attwood had set a luridly coloured neon playground of yellows, reds, purples and greens. Large balls sat atop spindly poles, a makeshift frame held an assortment of food and inflatable fish, and a wonky pink church stood crookedly upstage. The women wore coordinated go-go dresses and wigs, the men wore overalls and striped tops, and the overall effect was of an episode of Mr Tumble transplanted into the animated Yellow Submarine movie.

Aesthetic translated into performance. Between most scenes, the company emerged to dance and flail, led by some remarkably rubbery-limbed men and an assortment of day-glo-pink nuns. The entire of the enormous stage space was employed throughout and, crucially, the group actions were only loosely choreographed, allowing the company to respond naturally to what was happening. The Festival atmosphere was maintained through ad-libs, half-heard remarks and indignant complaining, with lots going on in every corner.

Creatively, the most innovative decision was to have a single actor playing each set of twins, with slight differences in physical appearance (only one Antipholus wore glasses; only one Dromio wore a cap) and major differences in personality. The beauty of this is that, where most productions have their work cut out trying to make the twins similar, this production concentrated instead on differentiating them. Sam Jenkins-Shaw was a revelatory Antipholus. His Syracusan was timid, feeble, prone to whining; his Ephesian upright, booming, indignant. The two characters responded to confusion respectively with fear and anger, generating very different comic energies in their different appearances.

The Dromios were more similar, though the Ephesian had a manic edge over his brother. Sarah Anson worked her socks off, running loops around the huge stage and stand. Fascinatingly, her one body bore the marks of both sets of abuses. The violence of the production was almost entirely carried out with food and water, including a full-scale soaking with a bucket and an egg being cracked over her head, and as Anson’s two characters ran their errands, both becameo dirty and damp with the other’s sufferings as well as her own, bringing the bodies together long before the conclusion.

Inevitably, the entire audience were waiting to see how the reunion of the twins would be handled, and this was achieved brilliantly with life-size cut outs of the two actors, manipulated by crouching cast members. With deliberate fuss and speed, the actors would throw their demarcating props high in the air for their dummy other to catch as they switched frantically between their roles, while the increasingly flustered operators ran in the opposite direction to keep up. This whirlwind of energy made for a roaring climax without sacrificing any of the characters, bravely upping the hilarity in the closing seconds.

The cartoonish feel was maintained throughout the production by amusing ensemble cues (at every mention of Syracuse, the entire company spat; every time the abbey door opened, the company sang as a choir), by absurd idiosyncrasies (the Duke had a toadying attendant who ran behind him at all times carrying a chair ready for him to sink into), and by wonderful caricatures, most notably Harry Livingstone’s wordless Nell, a grotesque, chomping, animalistic predator, licking her lips at the sight of Dromio and pursuing the hapless servant offstage. Douglas Dean’s Pinch, pleasingly, was an American faith healer, screaming for the demons to release Antipholus. Each character was nicely individualised and acted to an extreme, drawn in broad brush strokes and slathered in primary colours.

While the production might have done more to vary the tone and pace to enable particular moments to stand out, the relentless speed largely worked in the play’s favour, and absolute standout moments of timeless slapstick (Luciana throwing a bucket of water over Dromio, Dromio being used as a human battering ram) lost none of their effect. Starting the play at such speed did mean that there was less room for crescendo, so by the final moments Clementine Croft’s exasperated Adriana had to go the extremes of punching and killing a nun (who shook vigorously every time death was mentioned). Perhaps inevitably, the heightened  antics were finally defused with a collective group sigh of realisation.

The structured chaos was the happiest effect of a production whose ensemble ethos ensured a company who clearly loved working with and reacting to one another, and of a rehearsal period brief enough to ensure that the spontaneity wasn’t ‘perfected’ into a deathly slickness. If this production was representative of the Pendley spirit, then the Festival has clearly developed a winning formula for maximum enjoyment. I was treated royally and, while I’m disappointed not to have a chance to see the ensemble tackle Hamlet this coming week, I’ll look forward to returning for future seasons.

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