The Comedy of Errors

Playhouse, QPAC (Bell Shakespeare)


It’s extraordinary that this funny play is so seldom performed. Perhaps Shakespeare purists are sniffy about it because it’s an early comedy and somewhat slight in comparison with the later works. Yet like early Mozart The Comedy of Errors is still incomparably greater than much if not most of what has been devised by others. I read the play for the first time last year, and found myself laughing out loud at some of the jokes and cleverly contrived situations.

To say the Bell Shakespeare do the play justice is a massive understatement. This is a brilliant production, satisfying at all levels.

The title of the play isn’t exactly subtle, and the plot matches it. A master and his servant turn up in the ancient city of Ephesus in southern Turkey, each of them with an unknown twin brother who are also master and servant. (This unlikely scenario results from their all having been separated during a storm at sea; which also resulted in each twin having the same name as his brother.)

So they prowl around Ephesus, being greeted by name by total strangers and taken into the home of the authentic master and servant, who find themselves locked out on the street. Endless misunderstandings occur, involving necklaces, welcomes from wives, the denying of debts to merchants and so on, as well as the mystery of what ever became of the twins’ elderly parents.

Sean O’Shea and Christopher Stollery are splendid as the two Antipholuses, radiating their superior breeding and their lack of brains. The women, Adriana and her sister Luciana, are played by Blazey Best and Jody Kennedy a little zanier than I would have imagined, but fittingly within the context of this production. Best is dazzling with her voluble monologues, including extended haranguings of her puzzled husband and his twin. O’Shea and Stollery are equally good at the extended rant.

Both Darren Gilshenan & Paul Eastway are cheerfully insouciant as the twin manservants, the Dromios. Gilshenan is of course well-known to audiences in his home town, through his key role in The Servant of Two Masters last year. He has the remarkable power of the comic to make an audience laugh when he is simply poker-faced, such is the anticipation he can build for what is to come. His antics and gestures as well as his plaintive ocker tone are a delight. Eastway does well to match him in so many respects.

It is splendid also to see Anna Volska as Emilia, looking so much the part of a contemporary kindly teaching or hospital nun, and letting her gentle words lull us into a frame of mind that is severely jolted when she lets her temper explode. Other players Catherine Moore, David Davies, Robert Alexander and Patrick Brammall all play their various parts well.

A wonderful bonus in this production is the use of magician (or as he seems to be called, illusionist) Ross Skiffington. He entertains with a dazzling array of tricks before and throughout the play, adding to the absurdity of the contrived situations in which the characters find themselves, but also helping to emphasise the sense of mystery and bewitchedness that permeates Ephesus. Apart from Skiffington’s talents (as actor as well as conjurer), there is much complex and very impressive physical work from many of the cast, which all contribute to the remarkable evenness of the production. The masks, dancing and lighting all add to the enchanting effect, while the original music by Phillip Johnston, together with the design (Jennie Tate) are perfect in eliciting the sense of the Middle East, and, in these troubled times, reminding us of the splendour and humanity of the eastern Mediterranean region.

As is normal with Shakespeare, the play can be enjoyed at various levels, and the program guide gives helpful tips in unravelling some of the themes, including family break-up and reunion, as well as the nature of twins ( the play has a lovely conclusion, with a touching little dialogue between the newly-united twin Dromios). One interesting little bypath Shakespeare travels, which again bring to mind Mozart, is the nature of forbidden attraction between in-laws (with Luciana and her sister’s supposed husband drawn towards each other).

This is a show I strongly recommend. Director John Bell and his travelling troupe have given us an outstanding and memorable production. And a pat on the back to the playwright too.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Thu 12th August 2004)