As the denouement to Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors draws closer in the dusky evening of Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, two of the lead characters feign possession to scare off an angry mob. It is apt, as much of the production feels possessed by different spirits.
The Bard’s farcical tale of two pairs of twins, separated by a storm at sea as children but unknowingly thrown together again in Ephesus years later, has been given the feeling of 1940s Casablanca by director Philip Franks. Persian rugs and huge whicker baskets scatter the stage, which is dominated by a billboard from the Ephesus tourist board. There is a touch of ‘Allo, ‘Allo about the comedy, not least in the accent of French maid Luce, and in the course of the evening we are also treated to everything from panto and Keystone Kops to musical comedy and even a possible reference to Shaun Of The Dead, as the cast and director try maybe a little too hard to wrench the laughs from the Open Air audience.
In Franks’s programme notes, he says he is trying to break away from the misogyny that other productions have featured. He achieves this, to an extent, by making the courtesan to which a confused and angry Antipholus – one of the twins bound up in a series of confusing identity mishaps – retreats, less prostitute and more nightclub hostess. West End leading lady Anna-Jane Casey shines in the role, bringing teeth-flashing, scantily-clad verve to the Regent’s Park stage.
But that misogyny is hard to escape in a text that sees a husband advised by his sister-in-law to continue deceiving his wife, but to do it more stealthily, in which that same wife climbs all over her husband like randy ivy moments after thinking he had treated her badly, and in which a maid is reviled for being fat and sweaty.
Among all the confusion you get when two sets of identical twins end up thrown together – wives, merchants and lovers confusing their husbands and customers – there is also the tale of a Egeon, a man given a day in which to raise bail money before he is killed. He tops and tails the story, but his desperate struggle to save his life is forgotten during the giggle in the middle.
It is a devilish piece indeed and maybe I am guilty of thinking too deeply about it. There are laughs to be had whatever makes you chortle, and strong performances from the quartet of twins (Daniel Weyman, Joseph Kloska, Daniel Llewelyn-Williams and Josh Cohen). And there is even a surprise appearance from an animal you would not normally find in Regent’s Park… at least, not outside the zoo. Silly? Yes, but you have got to laugh.