The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
May 21st - 24th, 2003
The Tower Theatre performing at Islington Green School
Antipholus of Syracuse : Douglas McDiarmid
Dromio of Syracuse : James Folan
First Merchant : Kenyon Dyson
In-house review by Richard Dunn
Richard Dunn, a Friend of the Tower, was before retirement commissioner for drama and arts programmes at the BBC World Service.
Two sets of identical twins? Oh come on! Identical twins acting as servants to identical twins? Do me a favour! Separated in a shipwreck? They wouldn't even do that on Crossroads! Do you wonder that The Comedy of Errors is my least favourite Shakespeare? It relies on slapstick and "topical" gags rather than character or wit. It's as if Shakespeare had dropped Beatrice and Benedick from Much Ado and just left us with the Dogberry bits. How brave, then, to choose the play for the Paris Shakespeare season. And how risky of the "Noises Off" editor to ask me to review it.
The evening started unpromisingly in the large, bare assembly hail of Islington Green School. No raked seating, no curtains to open, no glittering set, just two painted cloths representing doors (designed by Kim Haslam and nicely executed by Jo Staples), split down the middle to allow for entrances and exits. And a lighting plan (designer, Laurence Tuerk) that consisted of setting the spots beforehand and switching them on at the beginning and off at the end. That's theatrical homelessness for you!
The entry of the first white-masked actors, dressed as refugees from the Venice carnival, and wafting about the stage made the heart sink even further. I've never seen a masque that didn't make me want to strangle all the participants. I experienced some relief as the masks came off for the play proper. Enter Egeon (John Morton) and the Duke (the bearded Alexander Gordon Wood in a long blonde wig that made me wonder what Buffalo Bill was doing in Ephesus). This exposition scene is really a bit of a clanger by the young and inexperienced Shakespeare. It contains an only-briefly-interrupted exposition speech 108 lines long.
It gets the play off to a dreadfully slow and actually rather tragic start, as Egeon tells how his sons and their servants came to be lost. However, John Morton's use of inflection and gesture, aided by some deft directorial touches from Peter Novis and Alison Hopwood made it instantly evident that a great deal of thought and imagination had gone into making Shakespeare's every meaning clear. Indeed, clarity was the hallmark of the evening. Good clear diction and correct intonation was accompanied by signposts on the stage : literal ones demonstrating that "The Centaur" was a lodging house offstage, and metaphorical ones such as the entry of a small crowd during one speech simply to underline the fact that "the stirring passage of the day" means nosey onlookers.
The arrival of the rest of the central characters lifted the spirits even further. They were sumptuously dressed by Kay Perversi, who chose stunning autumnal golds, reds and russets for the bulk of the cast, with the Antipholuses (Antipholi?) in emerald green. The Dromio costumes were a comic turn in their own right, from the top of their yellow flowerpot fezzes to the soles of their holed black tights. The fact that each set of twins had apparently chosen identical cloth and precisely the same tailor, despite living hundreds of miles apart, merely added to Shakespeare s own implausibilities.
There is not a lot of subtlety in The Comedy of Errors, and although Douglas McDiarmid and Jeffrey Smith as the Antipholus twins, Helen Jeckells as the rather shrewish Adriana, and Julia Arrowsmith as her sister Luciana all brought energy and intelligence to their roles, there was not a lot for them to get their teeth into from the point of view of characterisation. The result was that there was a fair bit of mugging in some of the scenes, particularly by those reacting, noir speaking. This may be perfect for an outdoor setting like Paris, but it is rather overwhelming in the front row of the stalls in a school hall.
Plenty of mugging, too, from the two Dromios, though more justifiably. Richardi Watkins as Dromio of Ephesus and James Folan as his brother from Syracuse had wonderfully mobile faces. I particularly liked James Folan's bits of comic business when describing the unprepossessing maid Nell (Emily Powell), who is pursuing him. His exaggerated gestures were both funny and made the meaning of the 450-year-old gags crystal clear. The only moment where invention failed for me was when Antipholus of Ephesus was locked out by his wife. I can see why a real door would have been awkward in the middle of the stage, but it did rather take the wind out of the comic sails of that scene having the actors simply pretend there was one there.
The supporting cast was made up of Tower stalwarts. Terry Mathews made a sympathetic Angelo who is angry and baffled at the failure of one of the Antipholuses to pay for a gold chain he has ordered, and Bob Bradick added strength as the short-tempered Second Merchant that Angelo owes money to. Alexander Gordon Wood doubled up as the Duke and an officer (minus the Jerry Hall wig this time), and Richard Pedersen played both Balthasar and a wonderfully eccentric Doctor Pinch in a veritable tutu of a beard. Emily Powell made a jolly Nell, and Kenyon Dyson and Rebecca Dunn (no relation) were more than adequate as the First Merchant and A Courtesan respectively.
The prize for the most striking entry of the night, though, went to Eileen Mullen as the Abbess (in another delightfully exaggerated costume), who exploded onstage like a cross between Lady Bracknell and the Queen of Hearts. By the end of the evening at least some of my many doubts about The Comedy of Errors were dispelled by the commitment, intelligence and skill of the players and directors. It was not perfect, not a "rip-roaring evening in the theatre", but it was genuine alchemy to turn someone who hates The Comedy of Errors as much as I do into the happy theatregoer who sailed into the Islington night with a smile on his face and a glow in his heart. After me, the French will be a pushover.