What: The Comedy of Errors
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
When: 12th of April 2012
Dromio…… Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio?
Luckily, he is (they are) here in Stratford-Upon-Avon adding a touch of (slightly) heavy-handed farce to “The Comedy of Errors” which just for a moment looked like it was about to drown under the curse of relevance.
When lights go up on the opening scene, Solinus, the Duke of Ephesus, is torturing Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse in water whilst surrounded by men in modern military uniform. The whole thing makes you shudder a little. It makes you wonder also how the children in the audience feel, in what is otherwise a largely family-friendly production.
The overtones of modern political and religious situations have become the stock-in-trade of the RSC in recent months but here in “The Comedy of Errors” especially it seems amazingly out-of-place.
At least, it gives the production an excuse for a stage-set which resembles a 21st century dock complete with a huge crane centre-stage which unloads crates and other hanging arrangements for the characters to appear from and even for Adriana’s home to be hung from.
Thankfully once the unpleasantness of the opening scene is set aside and aside from a later equally ridiculous scene where Jonathan Slinger’s Doctor Pinch becomes a macabre modern exorcist (Pinch in the standard dramatis personae is listed as a schoolmaster!) complete with electric shocks and a costume straight out of Hammer Horror, the “relevant” elements of the production disappear to be replaced by broad farce. In minutes we are transported from a world where we expect a discussion of extraordinary rendition to one where we wouldn’t be surprised to see Brian Rix waddle across the stage with his trousers around his ankles.
The two Dromios, Felix Hayes (Ephesus) and Bruce Mackinnon (Syracuse) are the highlight of a play which has echoes of the world of the silent movies of the Keystone Cops and the early talkies of The Three Stooges. Their costumes leave us no doubt that they are meant to be the fools of the piece but no matter how they had been attired the audience would not have been able to keep a straight face.
Kirsty Bushell is a strong Adriana and you can understand why Antipholus her husband has no desire to be caught out in a lie. Amongst the minor characters, Amie Burns Walker delivers a memorable and very broad whorish Courtesan and the female actors all acquit themselves well.
The weaknesses? Well, they are found in that opening scene and in the bizarre scenes surrounding Doctor Pinch’s appearance. Not only do these scenes seem so out of place but they are badly acted. Solinus’ lines drift away, semi-legible in a strong accent. The religious scenes are self-consciously set in Christian imagery, almost as though the RSC is embarrassed by the success of its work commemorating the anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. Joking aside, too many RSC productions that want to point up the bad side of religion have been given to characters costumed with huge crosses. If we are truly seeking relevance, there may be more than one religion in the world with flaws.
But this aside, this is a bright, broad and amiable production. The RSC has wasted too many of the Bard’s major works recently, it is ironic that they have a home win with such a slender composition as “The Comedy of Errors”