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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows, and various online archives preserve still more vintage productions. Even as things return to normal we continue to review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

The Comedy Of Errors
Royal Shakespeare Company 1976 and YouTube   August 2023

Shakespeare's comedies are easy to do badly and hard to do well. Here is an almost fifty year old production of his silliest farce that captures all of its comic absurdity and sunny sense of fun by not being too blindly reverent.

In 1976 Royal Shakespeare Company director Trevor Nunn turned The Comedy Of Errors into a perky musical by setting Shakespeare's play to cheerily pop tunes by Guy Woolfenden.

The words are all Shakespeare's (with occasional tweaks to make them fit the melody), the spirit is all Shakespeare's, and the result is a bit like the then-contemporary Hair or Godspell that is, tuneful and celebratory fun.

(Quick reminder: twins were separated as infants, and now one wanders into the town where the other lives. Got the comic potential? Now double it. Each has a manservant who is also a twin.)

Acting as his own lyricist, Trevor Nunn finds song possibilities from ballads to big production numbers. When a prisoner is warned he faces death if he doesn't pay his fine, the entire cast quotes Shakespeare to urge him 'Beg thou or borrow to make up the sum.'

When the local twin's wife is upset by what seems his odd behaviour, her sister warns her 'A man is master of his liberty.'

The visiting twin's confusion at being recognised by everyone turns into a dream ballet, and the evening ends with an infectious age-of-Aquarius-style finale built on the reunited servants' 'Let's go hand in hand, not one before another.'

The cast reminds us of a golden era when the RSC routinely had an extraordinary resident company. Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym are the twin masters, Michael Williams and Nicholas Grace the servants.

An impossibly young Judi Dench is the local wife, Francesca Annis her sister, and you will spot among the large cast Griffith Jones, Paul Brooke, Robin Ellis, Cherie Lunghi and an almost svelte Richard Griffiths.

Although cutaways in this recording show a Stratford-on-Avon audience, it has clearly been restaged for television, with the cast encouraged to play asides and reactions direct to camera.

Roger Rees seems to have an unlimited repertoire of befuddled looks, while Mike Gwilym almost matches him in comic ways of being frustrated and angry.

Francesca Annis as the schoolmarmly sister finds droll ways of looking askance without losing her place in the book she's reading, while Michael Williams and Nicholas Grace combine pratfalls and dance with comic grace.

But the absolute master of the sideways glance at the camera is Judi Dench, who can say more in a look than most actors can in reams of dialogue, and be spot-on hilarious while doing it.

Since we began exploring vintage online theatre in the past few years, we've uncovered several real gems among Shakespeare's comedies look at our Online Index pages for The Taming Of The Shrew and Much Ado About Nothing.

This happily irreverent Comedy Of Errors joins them by getting the spirit of the play right and trusting the words to take care of themselves, thereby producing a fast moving, happy and thoroughly entertaining couple of hours.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of The Comedy Of Errors (RSC 1976) - August 2023