By William Shakespeare
Imagine this. Twin brothers, separated from each other at an impressionable age, but both retaining their servants, who are also twin brothers. Unknown to each other, the twins bear the same name, and the twin servants also share a name. Will they get back together? Will their mother and father ever see them again, after one of each pair has gone off with each parent? Why are Syracuse and Ephesus at war? How will this affect one brother’s quest to find his twin? Does the other twin know or care? Do we care? Is this just a supremely silly piece of plot-making, or a 16th century version of Jigsaw, the organisation that reunites separated families?
If you think that’s a complicated plot, you’d better read a summary before you go to see the Queensland’s Shakespeare Ensemble version at the Metro Arts Centre, because director Rob Pensalfini and his team have twisted it even further with some radical gender-bending and androgynous costuming, so that both pairs of twins become women, and it becomes a game of who does what and with which and to whom? (I can feel a limerick coming on…)
You can find a dark sub-text here if you like, but I suspect Shakespeare was just having fun, which is what this enthusiastic university company also does, although the program notes claim that The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s most violent plays, and that very few productions have engaged with the text at anything but a superficial level.
Pensalfini might have an academic point, but it isn’t manifested in this production, which is played purely for laughs (northing wrong with that, though), and with more sexual innuendo than I suspect is in the text although I must admit that it must be 20 years since I last read it.
The production is a romp, and a very funny one at that, and if you tend to be puzzled by complicated Shakespearean plots, I suggest you go half an hour early to down a plastic tumbler or two of cheap-and-nasty wine (although you’d be better off sticking to the beer) and listen to the entertaining mock-Renaissance music improvised by Pensalfini himself and the indomitable Gavin Edwards who appears later as a trans-gender prostitute clad in a bolero that proudly displays his expensive chest-wax job.
The group of Ladies Who Had Lunched Not Wisely But Too Well seated in the front row didn’t have a clue what was going on, but at every interval (there are two) they tottered up to refill their plastic goblets and then settled back into their seats, playing up to Clint Bolster (Luciano, but don’t you worry about that) who was camping it up so much that he seemed to have come straight from the set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or from playing side-kick to Benny Hill. A lovely performance in itself, but he was in a different play from everyone else.
Still, who cares? The play itself seems chaotic, in spite of its carefully-plotted structure, and the production mirrors this crazy ambivalence. It may well take you a full hour to work out which twin is which, because both pairs are dressed the same and the actors look alike enough to confuse anyone except the most avid Shakespeare scholar, and I found it better just to put away the program, sit back, and let the whole thing wash over me until suddenly, miraculously, all became clear without my having to worry about it.
It’s a rollicking cast Sarah Ogden and Jane Barry make a lovely pair of Dromios (the servant-twins, although don’t ask me at this stage which one was from Ephesus and which from Syracuse), Louise Brehmer excelled in her send-up of Dr Pinch, mumbo-jumbo witch-finder willing to condemn anyone to prison just on a gut feeling (why am I reminded of some of our current politicians?), and Warren Meacham made even a two-centimetre thick wooden axe looking menacing. There are lots of pantomime tricks in the production, such as the mass spitting whenever the name of Syracuse is pronounced, savage but thankfully mock beatings, pulling of pigtails, and the inevitable randy raising of the forearm, and if after two hours you still don’t get it, just remember that, as in all good comedy, all’s well that ends well.
Let’s have more from this refreshing little company, who refuse to let themselves be over-awed by the Great Name, but who take the trouble to understand the text, and (even more impressively) speak it without affectation so that the audience can understand it too.
Directed by Rob Pensalfini
Playing until 12 November 2005, Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, matinee Saturday 12 at 2pm.
Duration: 2 hours, with 2 brief intervals