The Comedy of Errors, directed by Gordon Barr, the Macrobert Arts Centre, Stirling, 4 July 2014, right stalls.
Reviewed by Stéphanie Mercier
The Glaswegian ‘Bard in the Botanics’ production of The Comedy of Errors at the Macrobert Arts Centre on the Stirling University campus was both part of the troupe’s 2014 season and the British Shakespeare Association’s sixth biennial conference, the first to be held in Scotland. Originally programmed as an outdoor event, to make the most of the beautiful landscaped grounds, the rain that forced us all inside did not stop play nor dampen the spirits of the highly animated cast. Indeed, their communicative enthusiasm and unbroken energy adroitly transforms Shakespeare’s text about mistaken identity into a tongue-in-cheek allegory of national distinctiveness – just two months ahead of the Scottish referendum on independence.
The play’s comic take on sameness and singularity provides the production with a both a leitmotif and a wonderful excuse for audio-visual inventiveness. Targeted as the obvious enemy, the slightest mention of Syracuse (here synonymous with England, while Ephesus represents Scotland) triggers synchronised group disgust, booing and musically accompanied spitting that systematically raises laughs. The effect is heightened when Egeon (Kirk Bagé), later to steal the show as Dr. Pinch, is pulled forth on a rope by the provocatively attired Officer (Flora Sowerby) – complete with cap, sunglasses, miniskirt and motorbike boots – who doubles as the far more demurely dressed Abbess, then Egeon’s wife, at the end of the plot. The Duke, or rather the Duchess, of Ephesus (Amy Drummond), reads out the sentence hanging over the old man’s head whilst the two pairs of twins – one in blue tartan (the Antipholuses), the other in red (the Dromios) – mime the shipwreck that separated them all in the first place. The Southern Belle drawl of the First Merchant (Jessica Thigpen) – which is either a cue to the Independence Day performance or a hint to the capitalistic bent of cross-Atlantic exchanges – gives an added dimension to the ‘town full of cozenage’ (1.2.97) that the naïve RP-accented Antipholus of Syracuse (James Ronan) unwittingly arrives in.
The arrival of Dromio of Syracuse (Robert Elkin) (2.2) in Tam O’Shanter, Scottish flag under kilt and Nessie soft toy under one arm nearly brings the house down: especially when the poor servant’s newfound friend from Loch Ness is made to tremble and cuddled before the increasingly exasperated Antipholus wrings its neck and kicks it into the audience – in a (tragi)comic statement about dominance and submission. The comedy rises crescendo when the lustful Adriana (Nicole Cooper) appears to claim her marital trophy. In reverse replay and still shot, it is Antipholus who is dominated, cajoled, stroked and his head stuck in his ‘wife’s’ cleavage whilst he whines, cringes, and hides behind Dromio in petrified disbelief that he can be to this extent ‘to [him]self disguised’ (2.2.213). And, if the Act 3 Scene 1 Porter scene hits the bottom line of genteel respectability – including a door-slamming, wind-breaking competition, it warms spectators up for the next part of the running joke on British togetherness, featuring Antipholus of Syracuse appearing sexually exhausted in his Union Jack underpants – something that would not have been out of place in Shakespeare’s original scenario.
As Antipholus of Syracuse once again monologues his bewilderment, he abruptly breaks off to announce a fifteen-minute interval that does nothing to interrupt the comic flow. There follows the policewoman’s Punch-and-Judy baton routine with Angelo and then the ever-flirting Antipholus of Ephesus (Tom Duncan), who, unsurprisingly, heartily enjoys being handcuffed. This also ties in perfectly with Antipholus of Syracuse’s aghast verbal juxtaposition of ‘body’ and ‘commodities’ (4.3) which leads to the Courtesan’s (Jessica Thigpen) apparition in search of her ring, like a she-devil, to be waved off by a handy drumstick and theatrical incantation that has everyone rolling in the aisles. The vision of Pinch, who appears as a gold-suited guru singing Annie Lennox’s ‘There Must Be an Angel Playing with my Heart’, accompanied by the now winged cast’s choreography, is another high point of the production. The play is pulled into the realm of musical comedy and the music continues as events proceed to the next Syracusian arrival ‘with naked swords’ (4.4.142) or rather phallic-looking balloon sculptures that are totally ineffective in warding off the Ephesian ‘villains’ (5.1) but bring an added dimension to the comic question of who is conquering whom. Fittingly, the Abbess in huge coif and tartan shift then has her victorious religious/secular power struggle with Adriana over the Syracusians so that the latter is compelled to fall prostrate before the plastic-orange-and-white-pistol-wielding Duchess to implore her just as obviously artificial authority and her recent de facto marital due.
Her de jure husband’s hilarious mock-heroic enactment of the general disorder that now has him roped to his own servant ushers in the sibling and spouse reconciliation. In a final expression of Scottish, and United, sense of self, the tartan-jacketed Dromios remain alone on stage, before the production replaces the traditional jig with The Proclaimers’ ‘I’m on My Way’. The international audience joins in the singing in a moment of spiritual communion that soars above administrative frontiers and makes a final point about the comedy of human errors that, unfortunately, is not usually as funny as events on stage. Ultimately then, this jubilant version of Shakespeare’s play is a reminder that cheer, not fear, is still the way ‘from misery to happiness today’.
Read a full-length version of this review in Cahiers Élisabéthains 87 (spring 2015).
Stéphanie Mercieris an agrégée French and English bi-national who teaches at the Université de Poitiers. She is currently working on a thesis on the Commodification of the Body in Shakespeare’s Theatre. She reviews regularly for L’Oeil du Spectateur, the Cahiers Shakespeare en Devenir supplement on the Poitiers University website. Contact details: firstname.lastname@example.org.