Your Jest is Earnest… I familiarly sometimes do use you for my fool and chat with you.

What: The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

When: July 21 and 22, 2021

Where: The Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company

William Shakespeare’s play “The Comedy of Errors” is a better play than many believe and the Royal Shakespeare Company current production of it is better than I expected…

And, oh, is it so good to be back in the theatre after everything we have lived through over the last year and a half.

When you arrive at the Lydia and Marcus Gorvy Garden Theatre you will be required to wear a face mask and your seat will be socially distanced from the nearest person who is not from your party. But once you’re in your seat, then you can remove that mask that you have become so used to wearing and settle back and enjoy.

It is an outdoor theatre but we are in the midst of a heatwave on the two nights I attended so no danger of getting wet in these exposed seats. These days I have to wear dark glasses so no sunglasses required either (!).

The stage set (pictured above) is simple but effective. The microphone stands that are scattered around are mostly for the use of the singers (more on them later), and for audio effects and jokes. More of a shame is that many of the actors wear wraparound face mikes. Either the company lacks confidence or vocal projection is a dying art.

Going back to my point about “The Comedy of Errors” being under-rated, it is not difficult to find reviews that have been published over the years which criticise the play for being written in “doggerel”. In fact, the play has many different styles of rhyme and prose; only a few of which sound cheap and hurried. Anyway, for better or worse that is the way the Bard of Avon wrote it. We know that this was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays: it was performed at Gray’s Inn in 1594. Most importantly, his priority in this play was not to convert his sources into wonderful verse and iambic pentameter but rather to borrow a little from those sources and to enrich them as he developed his skill in governing story development and tightly organising a story of his own.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge did the play a severe disservice when he famously asserted it was “farce” and therefore should not be judged by the standards normally applied to comedy. Indeed, the elements within this production which are farcical are those which are introduced by the director and the physical comedy of the actors. That is not to denigrate those elements either. They are well-judged and ensure a good early evening humorous feast for all who attend.

It is frequently noted that the major source for the basis of this play is Plautus’ The Menaechmi. But we must note that what is most remarkable about the play is how Shakespeare has developed and not over-relied on his source. He kneads into this basic outline a very large amount of the morality of the New Testament and then seasons it with the pathetic plight of Egeon (here, remarkably brought to life by Antony Bunsee) and the courage and resilience of Aemilia, the abbess (played by Zoe Lambert). In the midst of the comedy (yes, I use the term that Coleridge rejected), these characters and the excellent members of the cast who bring them to life are just what the play and the production needs to ground them in some kind of nearly believable situ.

The obvious humorous centre of this play of mistaken identities is well-handled in this production. The two brothers and their two servants are excellent played. Their physical humour is frantic (sometimes a little too so) but on the whole it works well. Antipholus of Syracuse is played by Guy Lewis. He is the calmer of the two brothers and at times his phrasing resembles Frank Skinner. The more effervescent is Rowan Polonski who plays Antipholus of Ephesus. If we were to make a comparison it would be to the energy of an Adrian Edmondson. However, whatever the physical and phrasing simiarities in those comparisions, the perfomances are not derivative and I make them only to give you a flavour of the actors’ manner.

Jonathan Broadbent and Greg Haiste are the two servants and they are a great lesson to those in charge of casting in what can be achieved with similar clothing and a pair of glasses. Broadbent is by far the more vibrant and bubbly of the two Dromios and this means that the pairing of the calmer Antipholus with the livelier Dromio makes for a near perfect balance. There is one great scene when Dromio of Syracuse jumps into water in a desperate attempt to avoid the rotund, romanic interest of the other Dromio (Ephesus). That passionate approach takes place off-stage and we see Dromio fleeing but know not why. He then returns dripping wet to reveal the earlier torrid events and his subsequent alarm.

The setting of Ephesus found in the play could well be that of Shakespeare’s day, the direction of Phillip Breen sets it in costumes that are of a more modern era (although exactly when is difficult to realise as the costumes come from different cultures), but the morality of Ephesus found in the text arises entirely from the New Testament writings of St Paul and his companion, Luke. In the Acts of the Apostles, Luke describes a society which is dominated by magic, idol worship and divination. This is clearly reflected in Shakespeare’s script:

“They say this town is full of cozenage,
As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye,
Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind,
Soul-killing witches that deform the body,
Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks,
And many such-like liberties of sin”

In the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Paul brings the message of Jesus and the gospel to Ephesus and people begin to mend their ways and the books of magic and means of divination are destroyed.

Antipholus of Syracuse is one who rejects the values of the old Ephesian society:

“Now, as I am a Christian, answer me
In what safe place you have bestowed my money”

This, then, brings us to the other part of the New Testament which is crucial to the play. This is, not suprisingly, Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. A large part of this letter is taken up with the requirement that God has, that husbands should honour their wives and that masters should respect those who work as their servants. Shakespeare’s play sees the two masters beating their servants for perceived misdoings – alarming enough but all the more so in a play which is a comedy of errors about identity. So, we find Antipholus of Ephesus beating around the head a servant who is not even his employee. The culture that allows this needs to be mended and such greivous things not ignored.

Also, the play concerns itself with the fact that Antipholus of Ephesus, by his own admission, whilst married, has been visiting with a courtesan. This courtesan is a prominent character in The Menaechmi where the character has a name – Erotium. In “The Comedy of Errors” her role is much less significant and she is used simply to illustrate the sexual morality of the men in the plot – especially the married Antipholus (Ephesus). The courtesan’s role in this production is much smaller than it was in the RSC‘s last production of this comedy. (see my overview of that production here:

The wife of Antipholus of Ephesus (Adrianna) is played by Hedydd Dylan and again her performance has many highlights especially in her dialogue with her character’s sister, Luciana, played by Avita Jay. The plot requires that Adrianna be visited by Antipholus of Syracuse who she has mistaken for her husband. When he leaves, apparently rejecting her in an offstage scene, he openly declares his love not for Adrianna but for Avita. This leads to confusion and threatens the sisterly bond. Both act out all of this with skill.

So, are there problems with this production? Well, as you might expect, yes. My major difficult is with the vocal group who provide the music and the material they have been given to work with. At times they sound a little like 70s/80s rock’n’roll revivalists, Darts. At other times, they resemble 70s jazz vocal revivalists, Manhattan Transfer. Again, there is time when they come over all choral. On one, occasion, they are given an acapella chant of “capitalism, capitalism, capitalism” for no other apparent reason other than the fact that denigrating capitalism is on trend at the moment. Ultimately, the music is pleasant enough but adds nothing much to the production.

During the closing moments as the actors receive their generous and deserved applause we move into a rhythmic acapella and drum piece which the actors dance to in a kitsch African manner with vocal accompaniment from the singers. Other than getting the audience to clap along. this is inconsistent with the production as a whole.

But, overall this is a production which comes with a strong recommendation. Catch it in Stratford or when it transfers to the provinces or to the Barbican in London.

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