The TheatreguideLondon Review
The Comedy of Errors
Roundhouse Summer 2012, then Stratford
The Comedy of Errors is a very, very funny play. But you could be excused for not realising that if Amir Nizar Zuabi's production for the Royal Shakespeare Company were your only experience of it.
It is not that Zuabi misses or mishandles the comic opportunities, but that he actively fights them, as if determined to stifle every potential laugh before it is born.
I've encountered this sort of at-war-with-the-text approach to Shakespeare occasionally, and every once in a while you can see what the director was reaching for – exploring the dark sexual prejudices behind The Taming Of The Shrew, perhaps, or satirising the political manoeuvring in Richard III. But there really is nothing to The Comedy of Errors but its hilarity, and working so hard to repress it leaves very little to entertain or hold us.
(Reminder: this is the one about two sets of twins, masters and servants, who were separated as babies. One half of each pair wander into the town where their brothers live and are constantly mistaken for them.)
Director Zuabi and designer Jon Bausor have set the play in the grungy industrial dockyards of a modern city, in a repressive state run by a sadistic Mafia-like Duke. Those few scenes that can't be forced into this location are played on sets flown in on a giant gantry like containers being offloaded from a ship.
With a couple of notable exceptions, everyone has been directed to play their scenes as soap opera melodrama rather than farce or even character-driven comedy, as if this were an extended episode of EastEnders somehow set in Minsk.
Only Felix Hayes and Bruce MacKinnon as the two Dromios have been permitted to play comically and, particularly in their doubletakes and bits of mime, they give some hint of the flavour the whole play wants to have.
And only Kirsty Bushell, as the resident brother's wife, manages to create something resembling a real and sympathetic character by playing her more as unhappily loving woman than shrew, and this despite the challenge of playing most of her scenes while holding on for dear life in what amounts to a hanging birdcage.
Now, William Shakespeare is a greater artist than Amir Nizar Zuabi, and in this battle between the two he ultimately wins, but it's touch-and-go for a long time. Whatever director Zuabi was up to hasn't worked. Whatever he wanted to discover beneath the light farce Shakespeare wrote either isn't there or won't come out.
And a very, very funny play has been kept from us in the process.
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Review - The Comedy of Errors - RSC Roundhouse 2012
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