Originally published on The Bardathon, 1 March 2012.
Writing about web page https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/67933/productions/the-comedy-of-errors.html
The NT Live juggernaut rolls on. Now well-established as a theatrical/cinematic event, it was a pleasure to see the enormous Screen 1 of Nottingham’s Broadway cinema packed out with a lively audience for the latest offering, a broadcast of Dominic Cooke’s hugely successful The Comedy of Errors, which I missed in London. Even more of a pleasure was the realisation that NT Live has finally (apparently) realised that the extensive framing that I’ve complained about in previous offerings is unnecessary. A quick three minute interview preceded the show, with Cooke explaining the rationale behind this Errors in relation to previous productions – that instead of examining the experience of men arriving on a foreign shore, this production was set in an Ephesus recognisable as modern London, allowing the production to reflect on how “we” view new arrivals on “our” shores.
I’ve never seen an Errors that has fallen flat onstage, and this was no exception. Cooke’s production was busy, lively, musical and energetic, reducing both its live and distance audiences to tears. Not everything was entirely successful in the cinema: the difficulty of watching a production staged in such an enormous theatre is that the projected voices were too shouty for cinema speakers, and much of the slapstick that clearly worked on stage played too broadly in close-up on a big screen. It’s an unavoidable dilemma, but points to some of the drawbacks of the live broadcast.
The contemporary setting aimed to expose something of London’s seedier underbelly. Egeon was dragged on at gunpoint for the play’s opening with a bag over his head, while Solinus, a suited gangster, clicked his fingers at his lackeys. Later, the Syracusian twins found themselves in a red light district with prostitutes, gimps and transvestites, culminating in a red-lit sequence where the locals became grotesque and began mauling the two horrified visitors. The busy revolving stage of the National ensured an ever-changing series of locales – the pool bar in which Adriana confronted the Syracusian Antipholus, the modern apartment building where Adriana and Luciana lounged on a balcony sipping afternoon martinis, the cafe bar where the newly-arrived twins had their first “disagreement”.
Particularly fascinating was the way in which these fully-realised locations forced a sense of spectatorship and disruption.Lenny Henry and Lucian Msamati as the Syracusian Antipholus and Dromio had thick West African accents that differentiated them from the identically dressed, but thoroughly London-based, Ephesian twins; and their newness was marked in behavioural as well as aural terms. S.Antipholus had a disconcertingly violent approach to his servant – poking him in the eye, beating him over the head with trays and kicking him hard in the backside, behaviour which was reacted to with shock in their initial fight, as cafe customers scarpered to get out of their way. In the pool room, on the other hand, other patrons stood around wolf-whistling and catcalling as Adriana prowled the room, castigaging Antipholus for his behaviour towards her.
In this version of London, easy entertainment was found in foreigners being loud and ridiculous.
The foreignness of the Syracusian twins was not unproblematic, however. In particular, Henry’s thick accent, squeaks of indignation and quizzical moans turned him, at times, into a caricature of the “funny foreigner”. When he and Dromio identified the Ephesians as witches, they began clicking their fingers and crossing themselves in a panicked superstitious ritual, which provoked laughter from both the onstage and offstage audiences. While part of the production’s point was clearly to highlight problems of spectatorship and our enjoyment of the incongruous other, there was also something uncritical and disquieting about sitting in an all-white audience that was laughing hysterically at two caricatures of superstitious Africans stranded in the city. For a production that appeared at times to want to confront issues of racism and cultural conflict, there was to my mind too much reliance on easy cultural stereotyping and not enough reflection to reinforce a critique.
The encounter between the new arrivals and a multicultural city was interesting, however. Chris Jarman’s Ephesian Antipholus and Daniel Poyser’s Dromio had fully acclimatised and become successful, but still laughter was drawn as Antipholus was referred to as “pale”. A mix of Indian goldsmiths, Italian gangsters and Romanian musicians roamed the streets, the musicians playing wonderful folksy covers of songs touching on madness: Black Sabbath’s Paranoid, Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Tears for Fears’ Mad World. This chaotic, colourful world fleshed out the scene changes and wordless sequences, including a spectacular revolve scene as both sets of twins were chased through the streets by Pinch and his white-coated minions, while the scene shifted around them.
The highlights of the show, however, were the tremendous performances by Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as Luciana. Drawing on the WAG stereotype, both women wore improbably high heels (Adriana drawing an audible gasp as she managed to stand upright on top of a pool table), clinging dresses and a permanently disaffected air. Their London drawl, alternately pleading and sarcastic, kept the characters on the knife edge of parody, particularly as Terry allowed every syllable to hang as she hesitantly dealt with Antipholus’s wooing. The sense of entitlement and bitchiness that united and divided the pair was realised in simple hair tosses and shrugs, and Adriana in particular relied throughout on a combination of aggressive sexuality and indignant rage. In her first encounter with Antipholus she choreographed an entire vignette for herself, striding around the pool room, manoeuvring across the tables, clinging to Antipholus’s leg and more. As the Ephesian twins knocked to get into their house, we saw the two emerge for a post-coital cigarette on the top balcony of her apartment.
Not all of the humour worked well. The choice to play the ‘porter’ scene through a doorbell and intercom rendered the scene static, and a running gag with Luce appearing on the balcony just as the others were out of view went on for too long. The reduction of the scene to an exchange of farting showed a production that had, at this point, run out of ideas. The Luce set-piece speeches for the Syracusian Dromio were also more muted than I’ve seen elsewhere, despite Msamati’s impeccable comic timing in his final mention of her. Interestingly, where the final confusions before the revelation of the twins’ identity is usually played as the climax of the noise and chaos, Jarman delivered his final defence to Solinus in a serious vein, preparing us for the more sober tone of the conclusion rather than allowing for the usual sudden turn.
The production’s interest in the serious nature of the play was most evident in Joseph Mydell’s Aegeon and Pamela Nomvete’s Aemilia. Mydell’s initial recounting of his history was not helped by an overly fussy and confusing (for a cinema audience who saw only fragments of it) full-scale depiction of the wreck and separation behind the characters; but Mydell’s sober, sad Aegeon provided a point of gravity for the play, and the final scene lingered on the tender embrace between reunited husband and wife, far beyond the point of dramatic pace, in order to entirely readjust the tone – a moment repeated shortly after with the two Antipholi. Similarly, the closing scene allowed the camera to linger on the Ephesian Dromio’s proffered hand, occasioning audience sympathy as the two took hands and left the stage together.
Errors, despite its reputation, is actually an excellent play, and Cook’s production did it full justice. The immigration angle genuinely offered a new insight into the play’s imagining of dislocation and cross-cultural encounter and, while some of the humour occasioned by this was unnecessarily reductive, the production did successfully depict the implicit prejudices and assumptions that inevitably dog a multicultural society. With a combination of bravura set-pieces, entertaining performances and fantastic music, the play proved itself once again one of the strongest Shakespearean vehicles for invention and amusement.