Bell Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors

From his earliest plays, Shakespeare was transfixed by the ocean and its capacity as a catalyst for change and or rebirth. Plays such as The Merchant of Venice, Twelfth Night, Pericles and The Tempest are all infused with the rhythms and responses to such a vast unfathomable body of water such as the Mediterranean, and The Comedy of Errors is no different. One of Shakespeare’s earlier comedies, The Comedy of Errors was written in 1594, and draws its inspiration from two of Plautus’ plays, Menaechmi and Amphitruo. However, Shakespeare – being Shakespeare – sees the inherent theatricality in Menaechmi’s separated identical twins, and doubles it, thus creating a scintillating whirlwind of farce, comedy, identity, tragedy and pathos and his now trademark humanity and warmth.
In Bell Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, however, the farce is perhaps overplayed, the action too breakneck, the whirlwind too impossibly fast that we lose sight of the people at the centre of Shakespeare’s play. A comedy in name and style, The Comedy of Errors – like every other of Shakespeare’s comedies – walks the knife-edge between comedy and warmth, and tragedy and sadness, and I couldn’t help but think there was something missing from Imara Savage’s national tour production for 2013.

Set across one impossibly frenetic twelve-hour time period, Savage transposes Shakespeare’s daylight town of Ephesus to a nighttime city a la Sydney’s Kings Cross area, all neon lights and brawlers, bling and brothels. While this lends an edginess to the play, at least conceptually, it is perhaps over-egging the pudding, for Shakespeare does it already, in his set-up and his constant allusions to being twins, one half of a separated set. Staged on a set of a row opaque double-hinged doors, it feels at times like a Benny Hill-style sketch dragged on for 100 minutes, especially late in the piece when the characters are chasing the boys from Syracuse as the night edges towards dawn. The physical comedy, while well-played, is overwrought to the point of indulgence, the pratfalls and errors befalling the two sets of twins all too apparent, guessable and obvious.
Savage’s cast relish the production’s physicality and opportunities for pratfalling with gusto. As the twins Antipholus, Nathan O’Keefe and Septimus Caton are both totally bemused by the unwarranted attention and wrong assumptions forced upon them, yet are both credible mirrors of each other. Likewise for the Dromios, Renato Mussolino and Hazem Shammas. Adriana (Elena Carapertis) teeters around admirably on absurdly high heels while still managing to hold her own against anyone else; meanwhile, the scene Luciana (Jude Henshall) has with Nathan O’Keefe’s Antipholus on-and-around a washing machine is a glorious bit of innuendo which would probably make Shakespeare laugh. Anthony Taufa’s Balthasar and Duke (as well as a prostitute and a policeman, though not simultaneously) were all wonderful, and Demitrios Sirilas’ Angelo was suitably exaggerated and flamboyant, while Suzannah McDonald’s Emelia (the Abbess) perhaps followed The Princess Bride’s idea of the lisping clergy too closely. As Egeon, Eugene Gilfedder was every bit the man at wit’s end, world-weary and in need of a miracle which Shakespeare is only-too-happy to oblige with. As Dr Pinch, however, Gilfedder was absurd to the point of incomprehension, his quack-doctor’s mannerisms and physical tics bizarre and distracting.
Savage, in her Director’s Notes, says how she wanted to emphasise “a place of transition and transaction… the idea of altered states of perception… something of the feeling of [those] nights where we stay out until the sun comes up and in the cold light of day we are able to see everything for what it is.” It’s a fine concept, on paper and in practice, but again it comes back to the text: Shakespeare does it all for you; you just have to trust him. In the words of one of Bell Shakespeare’s 2013 Players, “if you love Shakespeare, he loves you right back.” There are some weak moments in Savage’s production, particularly the opening scene in which a distressed and manacled Egeon is questioned by an ominous omniscient voice-over. Played very much like an interrogation at an immigration facility, its own validity is undercut by its adherence to a contemporary parallel. Perhaps if the voice-over was on stage addressing Egeon, or if the scrolling LED screens had not been reading ‘IMMIGRATION’, the scene could have worked better; as it stands, it felt forced and unnecessary to the rest of the play’s colour, life and frenetic energy. There are several moments late in the play where the complexities (and the mind-bending logistics) of Shakespeare’s plotting escape Savage’s otherwise steady direction, and moments seem to descend into pure farce, ridiculous and sometimes incomprehensible beats of physical stage business that somehow link back in with the story as it is unfolding. If there is one major issue with Savage’s Comedy of Errors, it is that we lose sight of Egeon’s predicament, the very real possibility of his execution the following morning. By adding the first scene, Shakespeare forces us to see the play’s events though “the prism of Egeon’s grief… upping the ante considerably,” as Andy McLean writes in the program. Characters are “threatened with death or accused of lunacy. The whiff of xenophobia, injustice and anarchy are never far away.” Except in Savage’s production, save for that first scene, we largely lose sight of the reality of Egeon’s situation. All we see of him before Act Five are brief glimpses silhouetted against the coloured-lit doors, scrambling backwards and forth distractedly around the town at night.
At the heart of The Comedy of Errors is the story of a father looking for his two lost sons and his two adopted sons. It is a story of heartbreak and ruin, of devastation and uncertainty, yet it is disguised and surrounded by the complex plot device of mistaken identity and redemption that Shakespeare seems to have discovered here and perfected later on in his career, in Twelfth Night particularly. As Steve Mentz illustrates, spiralling out from a “near-fatal immersion [Errors] invokes the sea in multiple contexts; the waters are a space of transformation… a site of loss… a vehicle for commerce… and a source of long-deferred rescue and reunion.” Errors is thus an exploration on “what the ocean does to human bodies,” and Shakespeare would return to the same waters time and again throughout his career, each time building on and redefining the ideas that had come before.
The Comedy of Errors’ plot – one person (or four, as in Shakespeare) being mistaken for another – is not a new idea, nor was it in the 1500s to Shakespeare and the Elizabethans. Originally drawn from a Roman play and the Greek Romances of antiquity, contemporary audiences may be familiar with the story’s more recent cousin in One Man, Two Guvnors. While the story isn’t new, Shakespeare’s vision of it is. While it is most certainly an early Shakespeare play – sandwiched by the vastly stylistically different Henry VI plays and Titus Andronicus – it takes the tale of separation madness and, as Andrew Dickson points out, “delves into the essence of human identity, while its finale looks forwards to the magical reunions of the late Romances.” The play’s main action takes place “in a time gone crazy, twisted, looped, turning in on itself, not so much the medium of existence as a manifestation of its perplexities, even, at times, its horror.”  
Bell Shakespeare’s production is not without its errors and missteps, and its comedy may be over-played, but Shakespeare’s unmistakeable thumbprint is relatively intact. It just happens to be buried beneath the unrelenting hangover of a night on the town, shot through with all-too-liberal helpings of Kings Cross’s particular nightlife.

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