The tone of Blanche McIntyre’s production of The Comedy of Errors is set by a wordless pre-show sequence in which Jamie Wilkes’ Dromio struggles in vain to reach a pair of underwear suspended above the stage: this is a production with an emphasis on slapstick humour, and it’s at its best when it embraces it fully. The ridiculous premise is that two twin brothers both named Antipholus, each with a servant named Dromio, are separated as children, and unwittingly end up entangled in each other’s adult lives in the city of Ephesus. With no knowledge of the other pair’s existence, they are constantly mistaken for each other, leading to two hours of farcical madness involving a wrongful arrest, undeserved beatings and some misinterpreted seductions.
The premise is of course maddeningly improbable, but this production gets a lot of comic value from the confusions and frustrations of the mistaken identity, and there are some gloriously silly moments (including a fight with an impressive catalogue of dead animals used as weapons). However, I was unsurprised to find out later that this was the director’s first production at the Globe: parts of the first act are difficult to follow, particularly the rather complicated tale of the brothers’ separation which is almost incomprehensible in the hands of James Laurenson (Egeon), but once the scenario and characters are introduced the play descends into hugely enjoyable chaos.
Several members of the cast seem to be unfamiliar with the problems of the space, struggling to be heard above the audience’s laughter and overhead planes so that some of the subtler jokes and ideas in the dialogue are lost. The whole production, in fact, suffers from a lack of depth – it doesn’t give these quieter moments the space they need, and the flaws in one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays come into prominence, so that it never graduates beyond light farce. Thankfully, this at least it excels at.
Matthew Needham – brilliant in the Globe’s bloody Titus Andronicus earlier this year – gives another standout performance as Antipholus of Ephesus, with perfect comic timing and the ability to have the audience in fits of laughter with a single gesture. He is also the best verse speaker, all his lines not only easy to understand but delivered effortlessly, and it’s a shame that much of the cast fails to match him, despite enjoyable turns from Hattie Ladbury as his wife Adriana and James Wilkes as Dromio of Ephesus.
Whilst it’s not a hugely memorable production, the two hours fly by in an enjoyable rush of slick physical gags and absurd misunderstandings, and I at least left the theatre feeling that I had been thoroughly entertained.
The Comedy of Errors is playing at Shakespeare’s Globe until 12 October. For more information and tickets, see the Shakespeare Globe’s website. Photo by Marc Brennan.