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The Comedy of Errors

by on 11 August 2021

Double or Quips?

The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

Richmond Shakespeare Society, Fountain Gardens, York House, Twickenham until 14th August

Review by Mark Aspen

Yee-Hah!  In the Wild West of Ephesus folks are likely to be seeing double.  Could be the local hooch or moonshine hereabouts, or m’be it’s more than that?  So I moseyed down to the Naked Ladies’ tavern in Twickenham to take me a look.

The Richmond Shakespeare Society is back in town, or rather out of its theatre and it’s the Fountain Gardens for its traditional annual open-air show, which has been almost its raison d’être since 1934, thankfully re-established in all its glory after the worse ravages of the pandemic. 

With its errors resulting from the mistaken identities of identical twin brothers, the plot of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors has travelled far, from its original Latin farce, the Menæchmi, penned by Plautus around 200 B.C; all the way to Rodgers and Hart’s 1938 Broadway musical The Boys from Syracuse, this with various subsequent film versions.   So it’s got (gotten?) to America, but possibly never to the Wild West.   

Appropriately listening to country and western music whilst enjoying our pre-show picnic, the audience had plenty of opportunity to admire Junis Olmscheid’s colourful picture book set.  It is straight from Hollywood, to which she is no stranger.  The saloon has swinging half-doors, the Hotel Phoenix is shuttered and panelled, and they are connected via a wooden sidewalk.  This is the town of Ephesus (The USA probably has one somewhere way out west.)  It’s mean and dusty, where men are ma-en and women are wimmen.

It is certainly not the place to be for someone from Syracuse. (The USA certainly has one of those, somewhere upstate NY.)  So when Egeon, an elderly Syracusian trader turns up in town, he discovers he is less than welcome.  It is a capital offence for a Syracusian to be there.  But it does give chance for Egeon to tell a strange tale of being separated from his wife and one of his twin sons during a shipwreck.  The Duchess (played with regal hauteur by Pip Boulter) is moved enough to commute his summary sentence to a ransom.   Egeon is a somewhat unfulfilling role, as he bookends the play, giving the full backstory at the beginning and providing its resolution at the end of the action.  Nevertheless, Gately Freeman played the part with an air of bemused acceptance and compliant patience.

Shakespeare takes Plautus’ plot of the two twins, each confusingly named Antipholus and redoubles the mayhem with each having a slave confusingly named Dromio, both the masters and the servants being identical twins.  The possibilities for farce go up fourfold and the clownish Dromio brothers provide opportunities for slapstick.  Director Fiona Poole exploits all these potentialities in her break-neck self-deprecating production, which exudes fun from every pore.

When Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse arrive in Ephesus, they do not know that they have entered a lion’s den, but rather enjoy the cordiality with which they are received.  Everyone mistakes them for Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant, Dromio of Ephesus.  The Antipholoi suffer arrest, the Dromios beatings.  There are allegations of theft and of madness.  Seductions, and romantic and sexual shenanigans lead to accusations of infidelity.  If it’s hard to keep up, just sit back and enjoy the ride.

Darren McIlroy, as Antipholus of Syracuse , accentuates the opportunistic pragmatism of his character, an adventurer who travels hopefully.  McIlroy has mastered the rueful smile.  Tom Nunan’s Antipholus of Ephesus is a quick-tempered man expecting respect.  Nunan has mastered the vengeful scowl.  Between them, the Antipholoi provide the basis of the plot and motor the action.

With spot-on comic timing, Simon Bickerstaffe excels as Dromio of Ephesus.  He knows how to work his audience.  His go-to prop is his “hoss”, here a child’s hobby horse, a nice piece of self-put-down.  When the go-to become pass-by, his unfazed spontaneous asides are seamless.  Juanita Dahhan has tremendous fun as Dromio of Syracuse, particularly when he discovers he has a “wife” (Dromio of Ephesus ’s) whom is not quite to his taste.  Dahhan is quite lip-smacking in her sketch of Dromio of Syracuse ’s “wife” in the “she’s the kitchen wench and all grease” speech.  The depreciative descriptions of poor Luce, the kitchen wench, likening her to countries of the world, belie this Luce, demurely played by the charmingly willowy Charlotte Horobin, far from “spherical, like a globe”. 

Slapstick is the stock in trade of the Dromios and great use is made of the rope that Dromio of Ephesus is sent to buy to chastise the household of Antipholus of Ephesus for locking him out of his own house.  It features in a panto-esque visual gag in entwining the Officer (Bob Trimble) who has wrongfully arrested Antipholus of Ephesus. 

However, the play does not descend into merely a knock-about romp.  Shakespeare gives the moral compass to the female characters in The Comedy of Errors.  They bring much to the comedy, but bring much more to the serious points that run as an undercurrent, amongst them the importance of identity and the preciousness of fidelity.  Luciana, the unmarried sister-in-law of Antipholus of Ephesus is persuasively played by Anna Piggott.  Her “Why, headstrong liberty is lash’d with woe” speech, in which she explains the state of women at the time, “Men, more divine, the masters of all” is pitched with control and hence becomes stronger than the rant it could be.  When Antipholus of Syracuse woos her, Piggott again gets the right balance of flattery and outrage at being propositioned by her “brother-in-law”, for she takes him to be Antipholus of Ephesus. 

Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife is a proud and fiercely jealous woman.  Her portrayal by Nicola Doble is outstanding.  Adriana’s pain at feeling he has been unfaithful, “His company must do his minions grace, whilst I at home starve for a merry look” cuts right through the comedy to temper it with reality.  Her tense vexation grows as the play goes on, until it fairly zings with frustration.   At the denouement of the story, Doble’s delivery of Adrianna’s exposition of what has happened to the Duchess and to plea to her to have her husband released, was delivered at a patter-pace which drew applause from the audience.

Doble’s dress is good for flouncing.  Purple, with matching boots, it exemplifies the skills of the costumier team of John Gilbert, Junis Olmscheid and Miriam King.  These skills are also expressed in the defining salaciousness of the eye-popping costume of the Courtesan.

Trine Taraldsvik is superb as Antipholus of Ephesus’ after-hours distraction, the Courtesan, sassy, sexy and self-aware, but shrewd, sharp-witted and self-protective.  It’s all there in Taraldsvik’s portrayal, and, like most of the cast, she is clearly relishing the role. 

Gold is one of the Courtesan’s motivations.  Its purveyance by Angelo, the goldsmith (Max Bickerstaffe) is thwarted by the confusions of the double-trouble pair of pairs.  Equally confused is Balthazar, the merchant whose ships are held up by the mixed up transactions.  Ben Collingwood Best points up Balthazar’s role as a wise councillor to Antipholus of Ephesus , “You war against your reputation”. 

However, possession by demons is the eventual explanation of what appears to be Antipholus of Ephesus’ erratic behaviour.  So, the poor chap has to suffer all sorts of indignities (a situation that Shakespeare later used with Malvolio in Twelfth Night).   Enter Dr Pinch, a psychiatrist (it’s set in USA so there has to be a shrink) cum exorcist, complete with a portable steampunk apothecary shop.  Vaughan Evans acts Pinch as an increasingly frazzled pharmacist.

Eventually, Antipholus of Ephesus has to take sanctuary in an ancient priory (ancient priory in the Wild West?) protected by Cath Messum’s abbess Emilia.  Her version of sanctified serenity is shotgun sincerity.  However, when she reveals the Antipholus in her charge, all is revealed.

As darkness falls though on the Fountain Gardens, the revelation is via Andy Mathieson’s vibrant lighting design, not only of the stage, but of the Twickenham’s celebrated “naked ladies” (to the initiated, eight marble statues of Oceanids).  It may have been with the help of the Oceanids, but on the opening night Technical Director, Paul Nicholson’s team fought a brave battle between water and electricity, predation versus generation.  Pleased to say that, due to their skills, the techies prevailed.

The Comedy of Errors can be summed up in two words of Antipholus of Syracuse, “sure uncertainty”.  I can be sure that the RSS’s return to a full open air production is a triumph.  The uncertainty is: why was it set in the Wild West?  There was the rope, that features a lot in Westerns.  There’s the gold rush, via Angelo.  Maybe it’s just the sheer lawlessness of the time and place.   At the very end of the play, Shakespeare has the two Dromios, having discovered that they are brothers, walk off hand-in-hand.  Maybe they should just ride off into the sundown.  That’s what happens in all good Westerns.  Yee-Hah! 

Mark Aspen, August 2021

Photography by Handwritten Photography, Pete Messum and Elizabeth Wait

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