The Comedy of Errors

Queens Park, Toowoomba (USQ Performance Centre)


Amateur production

“Shakespeare was a performance poet he gave them what they wanted.”

Those are the words of Melbourne poet Lauren Williams, which I heard on the radio as I was driving back from Toowoomba last week, after seeing the latest production in USQ’s Shakespeare in Queen’s Park series. I found them helpful in re-forming my thoughts about this production, which I had left at interval because (a) it was the third version of this comedy I’d seen in six months, (b) the audience were noisy and laughed in all the wrong places, (c) the play is difficult enough to follow in the best of circumstances and (d) these were definitely not the best of circumstances.

Sixteenth-century comedy is notoriously difficult to produce effectively, because fashions in humour, especially the language, change very quickly, and what might have been excruciatingly funny to the groundlings at The Globe may leave a modern audience cold, even uncomprehending.

The response of most directors these days is to play up the physical comedy and play down the verbal jokes. After all, the wink-wink nudge-nudge approach always works, even in an impenetrable text, so why not give it a go, and let the public have what they want?

And to make the text more approachable, what’s wrong with the time-honoured technique of localising the references? You can argue that even the D’Oyly Carte Company do it with the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and if language up-dates make the play or musical work more relevant to modern audiences, that just proves their universal appeal.

But when does modernising become taking unjustified liberties? Transposing the ancient sites of Ephesus and Syracuse to Toowoomba’s Grand Central and Vacey Hall is one thing, but why not be consistent and use modern place names throughout, instead of some scenes taking place in Ephesus and some at Vacey Hall? The plot is complicated enough without having two layers of physical settings to contend with.

And I have to wonder about some of the modern references. Colostomy bags, with all the accompanying gestures? Tim-Tams? Budgies? I suppose you could use the old line that “if Shakespeare were alive today …”, but does it add anything to our understanding of the text?

The use of caricature was another problem. There seemed to be an attempt at Commedia del Arte characterisations, but they soon degenerated into clumsy farce, with very little good comic timing, and the boom-boom gestures growing stale very quickly.

Director Scott Witt, whose talents have hitherto shone bright, seems to have let his own philosophy take over, that Shakespeare should be “accessible, fun and not too long”, without adding that it should also make sense, and not be full of self-indulgence. And I’m not even sure that the production gave the audience what they wanted, unless it were cheap laughs the local place names were the only things they responded to. Performance poetry it was not, either, as the text had been chopped to pieces and rearranged, very much to its detriment.

If this were a self-selected group of rank amateurs the production could be forgiven, but these are final year students from the USQ’s Theatre Department. I was gravely disappointed, and it doesn’t bode well for the future of our professional theatre.

Directed by Scott Witt

Played 3, 4, 9, 10, 11 March at 7pm, with a matinee on Sunday 5 March at 5.30pm

Duration : 2 hours, including 30 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 9th March 2006)