From the opening scene, in which Egeon’s story is enacted on stage, complete with search and rescue helicopter crew, it is clear that this is to be a distinct and thoroughly modern update of Shakespeare’s farce.
Dominic Cooke’s debut at the National Theatre is not radical, but it is a fun, saucy affair which cleverly roots this story of two sets of twins mistaken for each other in a thoroughly contemporary world.
Ephesus is London, and Chris Jarman’s Antipholus of Ephesus is a well-known local businessman and general man-about-town, semi gangster perhaps, with a penchant for the ladies and a short temper which he often inflicts on his sidekick, Dromio (Daniel Poyser). His wife, Adriana (Claudie Blakley), is straight out of The Only Way Is Essex; when she’s not berating her absent husband from the balcony of their moneyed yet character-less new build apartment, she’s berating him while getting a massage and a moustache wax. The audience for her ranting is sister Luciana (Michelle Terry), an equally well-coiffed Essex girl who tries to reign in her sister’s temper. The pairing of Blakley and Terry is perfect; together they totter about the stage on their ludicrously high stilettos (bonus points to both actors for managing to wear them at all), brandishing their beige patent handbags like shields, and garnering laughs whenever they open their mouths.
Into this set-up stumbles Antipholus’s long-lost twin (Lenny Henry) with his sidekick Dromio, twin of the other. Newly arrived from somewhere in Africa, they are thrown into fast-paced London where the people already seem to know them. Of course the plot only works if you ignore the fact that Henry and Jarman look nothing like each other – and neither, sporting contrasting accents, do they sound like each other – but their identical clothes are obviously enough to fool Adriana, who takes Henry’s bemused Antipholus as her husband and not only dines with him, but beds him too.
So begins the extended palaver of mistaken identity in which neither Antipholus recognises the right Dromio, a gold chain gets sold to the wrong Antipholus, one of them gets arrested and all four end up running through the back streets of Soho trying to avoid men in white coats.
Cooke’s concept is brought to life by Bunny Christie’s incredible sets, which use the Olivier revolve to change the scene from Adriana’s apartment to the Porcupine bar in seedy Soho. The detail is impressive, and allows certain flourishes which I won’t spoil here. A four-piece folk band playing foreign-language versions of modern chart-toppers keep us entertained between scenes.
Henry, who made his Shakespeare debut in Othello a couple of years ago, seems much more at home in this comic caper where he can use a few Henry-isms to increase the laughs. His pairing with Lucian Msamati’s Dromio of Syracuse is effective; together they portray the bemusement, amusement and fear of two foreigners thrown into a living nightmare from which the spirits seems unable to protect them.
Cooke mines his concept right to the end, with the Abbey becoming something else entirely. All in all, it’s a clever package, wrapped up and delivered by Cooke to National Theatre audiences wanting more than a stocking filler this Christmas.