London’s Globe Theatre yesterday announced plans to reopen its doors on May 19th after restrictions are (hopefully) lifted in the wake of the pandemic; it’s been shut for 14 months. That’s still way better than the original venue which, in the ten years from 1603 to 1613, was shut for a total of 78 months – after which it promptly burned down. The Globe are starting off with three bankers in order to draw audiences back in (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night) all of which will play in front of socially distanced audiences and be trimmed to two hours to avoid intervals, which Shakespeare never had anyway. It’s perhaps surprising that they haven’t gone for The Comedy Of Errors which is one of the shortest to start with and would certainly give everyone a much needed laugh at this painful time.
However, they do have a videoed version from 2014 in their arsenal which hits the two hour mark – and, of course, you can have an interval (or not) at any time you choose. The production is quite rightly big on slapstick as the improbable events play out. Indeed, it’s a good ten minutes before a word of Shakespeare’s text is spoken as a ridiculous physical comedy sequence involving ladders and a pair of suspended underpants delights the crowd who are certainly not socially distanced (ah, those were the days). This more successfully sets the tone of what is to come than by starting with the interminable and deeply unfunny explanation from Egeon (James Laurenson) about the two sets of master/servant twins who have become separated and why he now faces the death sentence in Ephesus. At the other end of the play we get a parallel backstory retread as the Abbess Aemelia (Linda Broughton) takes us through it all again. In between, though, it is pure farce all the way.
Even if you’re not always following the convoluted plot there is still plenty to enjoy in Blanche McIntyre’s generally fast paced production which adheres to its stated eastern Mediterranean origins. James Cotterill’s brightly coloured costume designs are pleasingly vibrant and his Graeco-Roman set only just survives the rigours it is put through. Olly Fox’s music clearly pays homage to the rhythms and tones of the Balkans and underscores the physical comedy in which the cast repeatedly hurl things at each other including vegetables, fruit, wine, some huge Greek urns (obviously rubber) and the contents of fish baskets; particularly notable is the pink octopus (also obviously rubber). At one stage one of the characters ends up with his head inside a turkey in some sort of homage to Mr Bean – for it is that sort of manic comedy.
The central quartet of the Antipholi (Matthew Needham and Simon Harrison) and the Dromios (Brodie Ross and Jamie Wilkes) set an exhausting pace to look at and listen to and the fact that I sometimes felt my own sense of confusion as I tried to divine who was who suggests they are successful in their task. The two sisters Adriana (Hattie Ladbury) and Luciana (Becci Gemmell) are rather too reminiscent at times of Kate and Bianca from The Taming Of The Shrew although the former particularly brings a vampish edge to some scenes while she seems to enjoy the physical beatings she dishes out with increased abandon. There are several delightful performances in some of the more minor roles such as Anne Odeke’s servant Luce, Emma Jerrold’s courtesan, Andy Apollo’s police officer and Stefan Adegbola’s manically Gandalf-alike Doctor Pinch, a character to whom Shakespeare really should have awarded more stage time. At times I felt the talented cast were straining just a bit too hard for laughs and on a default setting of play it fast and play it hard. And, as ever in this play, it was noticeable that most of the big laughs came from directorial and actor choices for physical comedy moments which have nothing to do with the original text – two of the servant characters starting up a game of Quidditch drew a particular roar of appreciation. The verbal sparring, often incomprehensible in Shakespeare, is well handled and somehow makes more (non)sense than usual while the physical grappling and pratfalls are straight out of cartoon comedy. And there, I suppose, is one of the reasons why The Comedy Of Errors will be avoided for some while to come. How on earth do you keep the cast safe and socially distant and not ruin the necessary close contact interaction which the play requires? Answer – you can’t which is a pity because we need some celebratory stuff like this right now.
And so, that’s my penultimate Shakespeare in this year long investigation into his works online. It’s less than a week now until I reach my full birthday view/review so just time to squeeze in the final play in the next few days. Time for my own celebration and to think about how to take this whole blog forwards. At least this pacy farce is a cheery antidote to all these thought provoking anniversaries.
Production photos by Marc Brenner
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