This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
The Comedy of Errors, The Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, 16 March 2012 at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
By Christie Carson, Royal Holloway, University of London
The Comedy of Errors was the second show at the RSC to open as part of the ‘What country friend is this?’ season. Twelfth Night had previewed the week before on the same wooden set and utilised the surprising beginning of a character emerging from water gasping for breath. I am still not sure what this metaphor means, particularly as the RSC are the host to the World Shakespeare Festival rather than the bewildered newcomer but more of that in a minute.
At the beginning of Twelfth Night Emily Taaffe as Viola emerges directly from a pool of water that sits at the corner of the playing space. She erupts into the auditorium and disrupts the jovial and gentile atmosphere in the audience with her rather unladylike struggle both to breathe and to escape the water onto dry land. This opening certainly disrupts the conventional idea of how this play begins but apart from shocking the audience I was not sure of the point of this abrupt start to the play’s events. The theatrical illusion is not new, it is one that I saw at least a decade ago in Robert Lepage’s production of Bluebeard’s Castle at the Edinburgh Festival. So I don’t think it was the illusion I was responding to but rather the fact that this spluttering young woman seemed rather out of place on the Stratford stage. This feeling was reinforced continually by a production that seemed more interested in its own staging than in conveying the story. The torturing of Malvolio was particularly unpleasant in this production but I will let someone else get into that.
So when The Comedy of Errors began on the same set with Egeon having his head continually dunked in a fish tank as he tried to tell the story of his life my heart was rather heavy. When a director instructs an actor to do something that makes you worry for the longevity of the actor over the run of the show it seems to take away something in terms of my ability to suspend disbelief. But I was pleasantly surprised as Amir Nizar Zuabi’s production continued that this was not setting the tone for the entire production. In fact the stage quickly became a rather convincing busy port town where illegal imports, both human and material, came and went with great regularity. In this case the strong arm tactics of the ruling gang of bullies became increasingly funny as the show was slowly but surely stolen by the two wonderful Dromios.
I mention the fact that the same set is used in both Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors in order to highlight the way the two productions are linked visually. But the entire cast is also the same and it is very difficult to escape the way that the cross casting of these two plays had an impact on the second of the two performances I witnessed. Kirsty Bushell as Adriana and Emily Taaffe as Luciana had a great deal more chemistry as sisters than they did as the potential lovers of Olivia and Viola. The extraordinary swinging platform that they are given as their home creates a wonderful combination of a playground ride and the suspended baggage that Antipholus of Ephesus sees them to be. These women have a precarious place in the wheeling and dealing world of the dockyard merchants.
The position of the two servants is equally precarious but this actually provides the source of their great delight on stage. Felix Hayes as Dromio of Ephesus and Bruce Mackinnon as Dromio of Syracuse are incredible physical comedians who travel through the topsy turvy world they inhabit with a lightness and speed that is dizzying. Physically they are not really that similar but their movements are so in tune that it is almost impossible to tell which is which. They hop and glide, tumble and get bashed about as nimbly as clowns but meanwhile delivering the rhyming verse perfectly. The confusion the characters on stage feel is shared by the audience. So entirely engaging is their performance that they genuinely become ‘One face, one voice, one habit and two persons’ (Orsino Twelfth Night 5.1.200). Or perhaps more appropriately ‘One of these men is genius to the other ‘ (Duke The Comedy of Errors 5.1.334) since it is plain that these two actors take enormous pleasure in topping each other in performance. In some ways this is the first production of the play I have ever seen that truly caught the playfulness and absurdity of the story while at the same time making clear the very real issues of identity and self-discovery which are at the centre of Shakespeare’s work. Is this an inferior early play ‘That’s a question, how shall we try it?’ (Dromio of Ephesus The Comedy of Errors 5.1.425) I would suggest that this production provides a pretty convincing answer.
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