What do you get when you put two separated-at-birth pairs of twins, a dodgy Goldsmith and a sadistic doctor in the same city? I’m not going to attempt to make a joke but these factors make Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors a riotous play that explores mistaken identity and separation. Amir Nizar Zuabi’s production by the RSC at the Roundhouse was presented as part of the World Shakespeare Festival. This was a vibrant, energetic and hilarious take on one of Shakespeare’s plays.
The opening to the play was powerful and dramatic. Egeon, played by Nicholas Day was undergoing a rigorous interrogation, which involved his head being held underwater in a fish tank, (complete with fake plants and thankfully no fish). He was surrounded by soldiers carrying machine guns and a tannoy system through which Solinus spoke. Solinus was presented as a ‘mafia Don’ figure by Sandy Grierson. Grierson was calmly threatening and convincing.
Comedy was effortlessly created by the cast. In particular, Felix Hayes in the role of Dromio of Ephesus built a rapport with the audience through gestures, exaggerated expressions and, at one point, rap and hip-hop dance. Bruce Mackinnon in the role of Dromio of Syracuse brought to life the struggles of a man in an unfamiliar city. This was most apparent during the character’s interactions with Nell, the kitchen wench played with glee by Sarah Belcher. The constant abuse that the two Dromios receive from their masters was created through slapstick. Punches, slaps and a door being slammed into a face were hilarious for the audience to watch. It also made me empathise with the two servant characters – they only follow instruction yet receive beatings and injury for taking orders from the wrong master. The two Antipholuses were played with great presence by Jonathan McGuinness and Stephen Hagan. These shiny-suit-wearing wide-boys entrapped within each other’s murky dealings were presented as cocky and self-assured at the beginning of the play, but by the end one was singed and cuffed to a broken wicker chair and the other was on the verge of committing murder. Adriana was feisty and flirtatious. Kirsty Bushell convincingly portrayed the confusion of a woman who mistakes her brother-in-law for her husband, with hilarious results. As less likable character Jonathan Slinger made a delightfully sadistic and creepy Dr Pinch. Entering the stage as the priest of a bizarre religious sect he was flanked by actors encased in leather, PVC and billowing black robes. Slinger spoke with a calm, slow tone of voice, transforming a ridiculous character into something more sinister and alien. His ‘cure’ for Antipolus’s so called madness was to electrocute him using a pair of jump leads – not your typical GP …
Visually, the production captured the attention of the audience from start to finish. The set, by Jon Bausor, was part dock yard, part ship. Decking lead down to a giant fish tank, a murky world, complete with shopping trolley submerged within it. Oil drums, ropes, sacks and two huge sea containers created a modern, believable and gritty setting. The thrust staging made you feel part of the play and not just an observer. Technically impressive was a crane, suspended above the stage from which a dining room, front door, wooden crate, dead body, giant Virgin Mary and Egeon were flown in. Music from a live band which accompanied scene changes kept the frantic pace and energy of the play going until the end.
This production was a joy to watch and highlighted the RSC at its best. It was funny, professional and original, and it made Shakespeare modern and understandable.
The Comedy of Errors is playing at the Roundhouse as part of the World Shakespeare Festival until 4 July. For more information and tickets, see the Roundhouse website.