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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Comedy of Errors Archive
For the archive we have put our reviews of several productions of The Comedy Of Errors on one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.

RSC 2000 - National Theatre 2011 - Propeller 2011 - RSC 2012

RSC, Barbican Theatre Winter 2000-01

Occasionally - only occasionally - being an experienced theatre-goer proves a handicap, as you sit with an audience being mildly amused and thus satisfied by a play that you know, from past productions, could be so very much better, so that the audience is being cheated without even realizing it.

That's my experience of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Comedy of Errors, newly transferred to London from Stratford. It has its laughs, mainly when the actors get out of the way and let the play shine through, but director Lynne Parker and her cast have done so very much less than they could have with the sure-fire material Shakespeare gave them.

This is the one about the two sets of twins separated as children so that one half of each pair, master and servant, are roaming the world in search of their brothers. They wander into the town where the brothers live and are immediately mistaken for them (and, eventually, the resident brothers for the newcomers), leading to all sorts of comic confusion.

Of course, as with all great farces, if anyone stopped for an instant to ask the obvious questions - in this case, the visitors are looking for their brothers, and might be expected to guess they had found them - the whole thing would fall apart. So, as with all great farces, things have to move so quickly, and the laughs come so constantly, that they don't get a chance to ask and we don't get a chance to notice they haven't asked.

I've seen the RSC do the play successfully as whirlwind farce, as surreal absurdism, even as rock musical, and know how hilarious it can be, and how well they can do it. But Lynne Parker doesn't seem to have made up her mind what she wanted to do with the play, so it changes tone, style and comic mode every few minutes.

Some bits are Three Stooges-type slapstick, some are choreographed Commedia, some in silent film comic style, some in the stylization of musical comedy without the songs. No sooner does a bit get going and start to develop some comic rhythm or momentum than it is dropped for a new style.

And none of the styles is done with any real flair. There's a chase scene straight out of silent comedies, with people running back and forth across the stage and new sight gags added with each crossing, but it's almost leisurely when it should be frenetic. The sure-fire set piece in which the visiting Dromio describes a woman in terms of a globe is, rightly enough, done as a Music Hall turn, but with no snap or energy. We laugh, because the bit is indeed funny, but the production gets in its way rather than enhancing it.

Meanwhile, whole chunks of the play that are not obviously funny are played straight, instead of being invested with comic business, leading to long stretches of low energy from which the comic energy must be strenuously rebuilt.

The two servant brothers (Ian Hughes and Tom Smith) make some effort to suggest similarities of appearance and style, to give some credibility to the confusions, and Hughes, as the visiting one, works up some frantic comic energy. But the two masters don't resemble each other at all in looks or manner. The resident Antipholus (Anthony Howell) is given no personality at all, while the visitor (David Tennant) changes character from moment to moment, now country bumpkin, now suave playboy.

The resident brother's wife (Emily Raymond) can't decide - or hasn't been told by her director - whether she's a comic shrew or a misunderstood figure of pathos, while Jacqueline Defferary as her sister is a blank. For no particular reason, the Duke is given a Jewish accent and the actress playing a character described as monstrously fat is slim. In ever more frantic attempts to paste some visual humour into the play, one minor character is played as a Cossack, another does a sand dance, and there's a brief glimpse of a panto camel.

Yes, the audience laughed, and those who had never seen it before probably came away mildly satisfied. But it could have been so much better.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Olivier Theatre   Winter 2011-2012

The National Theatre's winter comedy is a thoroughly enjoyable romp, but just about all its virtues are Shakespeare's, with the production itself adding little.

(Quick reminder: two sets of twins separated as infants end up in the same town and are constantly mistaken for each other.) 

Directors, designers and actors of Shakespeare have three approaches – insights that illuminate and enrich the play, irrelevant concepts imposed on the play, and just staying out of its way. Dominic Cooke's direction and Bunny Christie's design fall somewhere between the second and third options.

There is a concept – setting this light-hearted farce in a gritty modern city – but it doesn't have much effect, positive or negative. One scene is set in a pool hall, Shakespeare's inn becomes a Hamburg or Amsterdam-style brothel, and the convent at the end is a rehab clinic. 

None of that is particularly funny, none adds anything to the play's meanings, but none is particularly distracting. (Dressing the resident Antipholus's wife and her sister in what Mafia molls might consider high style is a good visual joke, and helps the two actresses find funny characterisations.) 

For the most part, everybody just stays out of the way of the play and lets it work. The string of mistaken identity scenes, with their inevitable double-takes and confused reactions, virtually direct themselves, and very little happens here that is original or surprising. 

Neither Lenny Henry nor Chris Jarman as the Antipholi demonstrate much that's special in comic flair or timing, though Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser have an attractive and appropriate cheeky chappie quality as the Dromios. 

By playing wife and sister as bimbos trying to be ladies (or vice-versa), Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry do contribute something new to the fun, but several in the supporting cast seem visibly uncomfortable onstage, as if they had never been told who to play or even where to stand. 

Director Cooke does solve one of the play's big problems – a long speech of back-story exposition in the opening scene – by having it acted out behind the speaker, but elsewhere he repeatedly has trouble with big scenes, leaving too many actors just standing around trying to think of something to do while one or two are talking. (The Doctor Pinch chase scene is particularly awkward – though, to be fair, I've never seen it work.) 

There are a lot of laughs here, but the laughs are almost all Shakespeare's, and the best you can say of the production is that it finds and delivers them – which is commendation enough.

Gerald Berkowitz

Propeller, Hampstead Theatre Summer 2011 and touring

The Comedy of Errors is a very funny play, and any production will generate laughter. But this staging by Ed Hall's all-male Propeller company has fewer than it should.

'Dying is easy,' someone is reputed to have said, 'Comedy is hard.' Hall's actors work very hard at being funny, and that of course is death to comedy. 

Farce requires either the illusion of effortless spontaneity or choreographed precision that lets us enjoy the almost acrobatic expertise of the players. 

Watching the actors consciously pushing for the laughs, especially when, for all their undoubted talent, they are not natural clowns, means that not only do the laughs not come, but we're slightly embarrassed for them – think of how you feel when a stand-up comic has adequate material but is dying onstage.

Everything is just a little bit off. When the onstage musicians punctuate each joke with a rim shot or trumpet blast, they're a split second too late. 

As the actors rush about being comical, you can almost see them counting '...two, three, four. Turn. Double-take. Wait for laugh.' And when the laugh doesn't come, there's the brief flash of confusion and panic in their eyes.

Of course some of it works. The material is just too good to fail completely. (Does anyone need a reminder? Two sets of twins, separated as children, end up in the same city and keep getting mistaken for each other.) 

As the visiting Antipholus, Dugald Bruce-Lockhart does a nice line in confusion and frustration, and Robert Hands makes his brother's wife a panto dame to good comic effect. Richard Frame and Jon Trenchard pull off some of their pratfalls and physical gags as the twin Dromios.

But there's just too much a sense of the wrong actors and wrong director, doing their best but out of their element, trying too hard at what ought to look easy.

Gerald Berkowitz

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RSC 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.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Comedy of Errors - 2000, 2011,2012

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