THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
by William Shakespeare
Directed by Phillip Breen for the Royal Shakespeare Company
Barbican Theatre – until 31 December 2021
It might seem a bit odd to come out of a Shakespeare production raving about the singing and music. Yet these elements (composer Paddy Cunneen and four stellar vocalists in Dunja Botic, David Jones, Helena Raeburn, Robert Jenkins) are part of what lift Phillip Breen’s captivating new RSC production -first seen earlier this year at the company’s temporary outdoor auditorium in Stratford- from a hugely enjoyable rendition of the text into something truly special. Insistent, atonal and vaguely unsettling, with a slight Middle Eastern flavour, the music provides a haunting, grounding overlay to this most frenetic of Shakespearean texts.
To be fair, a gloriously diverse cast and the inspired work of movement and fight directors Charlotte Broom and Renny Krupinski (respectively), also play a valuable part in this production’s hyper-caffeinated appeal. Undoubtedly the nearest the Bard ever got to full-on farce, this tale of mistaken identities doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense, and what may have had the groundlings rolling about in the 1590s needs a bit of help these days (in one blissful comic moment that may infuriate purists, Jonathan Broadbent’s hilariously wan Dromio of Syracuse rounds on the audience bellowing “help me out here! These jokes are four hundred years old!”).
By setting the comedy in what appears to be the 1980s (to judge from some of the OTT fashion) in an unnamed Middle Eastern country where conspicuous consumerism (characters wander about toting designer shopping bags) sits alongside the constant threat of violence (Nicholas Prasad’s commanding, medallioned uniform wearing Duke is one step away from being a military dictator), Breen lends the piece a slightly harder, more sinister edge than we’re used to. This in turn throws the comedy into even more striking relief than usual, all the funnier because there seems to be a lot at stake. This isn’t simply a joyful romp anyway, there’s real substance here (the almost desperate hug reuniting the Dromio twins at the end has seldom been so moving, and there is a subtle but unmistakable suggestion that Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana’s relationship is damaged beyond repair by close of play).
It IS unquestionably a very funny production though, full of energy and invention. The clowning of both sets of twins (Broadbent and Greg Haiste as the Dromios, Guy Lewis and Rowan Polonski as the Antipholi, all sensational) is incredible but all the more hilarious because it is rooted in the terrible truth that all these people’s lives are potentially going to hell in a handcart. The women are every bit as good, Naomi Sheldon’s ultra-glam, heavily pregnant, totally fabulous Adriana joyously staggering back and forth over the fine line between passive-aggressive and flat-out aggression, abetted by Avita Jay’s fierce Luce. William Grint’s BSL using, Andy Warhol lookalike Second Merchant is another triumph: precious, preening, possibly deadly and utterly, biliously funny. You’d also have to be made of stone not to fall about at Baker Mukasa’s campily aggrieved Angelo hijacking a TV broadcast to shame Polonski’s magnificent Antipholus of Ephesus into paying up at the top of the second half. It’s a riot.
If the production sometimes sacrifices vocal clarity to energy and bombast when the farce really kicks in, and the set still looks built for all outdoor weathers, these are small caveats in what is a real treat of a production. If you don’t fancy panto or a big musical for your festive entertainment, get yourself over to the Barbican. This is a real cracker.