Following Twelfth Night, The Comedy Of Errors is the second play in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Comedies season to be presented at the newly refurbished Novello theatre. Shakespeare’s earliest comedy is packed to the hilt with gags based on his favourite theme, mistaken identity. Caroline Bishop went along to the first night to see if she could tell one amusingly-coiffed twin from the other.
Presumed to be one of the bard’s earliest plays, The Comedy Of Errors is thus one of the first to introduce themes that crop up throughout his later catalogue, namely shipwreck and mistaken identity. The play centres around a Syracusian merchant, Egeon, who once had a wife and twin sons, who both (in a distinct lack of foresight by Egeon) were given the same name, Antipholus. The brothers had two servants, also twin brothers, and also, funnily enough, both named the same – Dromio. In a twist of Shakespearian fate, the family were shipwrecked and Egeon became separated from his wife, one Antipholos and one Dromio. Egeon has spent the last 30 years looking for his lost family and arrives in Ephesus. Unaware his father is there, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse also arrive in Ephesus, looking for their twin brothers. Weirdly, they find the whole town greets them like they’ve always lived there, including a melodramatic woman who says Antipholus is her husband.
The scene is set for a hilarious series of mishaps and gags based on Twins 1 being confused for Twins 2. Suspending all disbelief that Twins 1, who are in Ephesus precisely to search for their identically-named brothers, do not click that they may actually have found them, this is a fabulously enjoyable comedy, with loads of classic Shakespeare humour.
Nancy Meckler, Artistic Director of Shared Experience theatre company, directs this RSC production, and goes all out with the slapstick comedy. The bard’s lewd jokes and assortment of villains, asses and unhappy strumpets are presented with relish. The cast have the enjoyable task of bouncing jokes off each other and they happily revel in portraying the characters’ continual misapprehension of the situation. Suzanne Burden is the feisty but insecure wife Adriana, Christopher Colquhoun and Joe Dixon are well matched as the two Antipholus, while the two Dromios, played by Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger, are almost indistinguishable with their matching northern accents, skewed orange hair and pinstripe waistcoats. The set is minimal, the lighting colourful and the action is punctuated with comedic musical interludes accompanied by the on-stage musicians. There’s even a chicken gag.
Just when the misunderstanding is taking on pantomime proportions, the twins are reunited with a collective gasp of recognition. Meckler’s production doesn’t descend into schmaltz however, and the slapstick continues right to the merry end.