Farce is all pace. There may be doors, there are often mistaken identities, there are always increasing levels of panic and confusion. But keeping the train on the tracks is all a matter of pace. Shakespeare’s Comedy Of Errors is his shortest by a long shot, and is often dismissed as child’s play. Try telling that to anyone who performs it.
Bell Shakespeare and the State Theatre of South Australia, under the direction of Imara Savage, have decided to set their production in King’s Cross, although any dodgy club strip in the country will do. Thus we have Adriana (Elena Carapetis) and Luciana (Jude Henshall) appearing under a solarium, Angelo (Demetrios Sirilas) with a Lebanese accent and dripping gold chains, and the whole cast trading in Fat Pizza-like cultural stereotypes. Not that the play can’t support all that. In fact, it actually feels quite at home.
Proceedings don’t begin in farce, though. Egeon (Eugene Gilfedder) stands in front of a series of doors marked Immigration, explaining forlornly his tale of woe. Years ago, his wife and twin sons, along with their twin servants, were separated from each other at sea. One set of twins grew up in Syracuse and one in Ephesus, neither aware of the other’s existence. This long scene of exposition is highly suggestive of current border politics, a strong idea that is rather timidly ignored hereafter. The play really takes off, though, when Antipholus of Syracuse (Nathan O’Keefe) and his servant Dromio (Renato Musolino) arrive in Ephesus, only to be mistaken for their local doppelgangers.
What is wonderful about The Comedy of Errors is that one can enjoy the rather sophisticated ideas at play and still laugh at heads smashing into doors. The mutability of self is both scenario and subtext; the idea that being mistaken for someone else is the fastest way to discovering who you actually are seems to infiltrate everything. We are given two superb speeches early on, and they both evoke the image of the drop of water dissolving into the ocean. Carapetis and O’Keefe deliver their monologues expertly, and are certainly very funny, but I would have liked the existential horror of their identity crises to be given full rein. It is, after all, the point of the play.
A production of this comedy lives and dies on the rapidity of the laughs, and this one mostly succeeds. The scene between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana on top of a washing machine is frankly hilarious, and the image of Doctor Pinch (Gilfedder again) running across the stage with a burning beard will be hard to forget. But farce is unforgiving when the pacing flags, and it happens here a little too often.
Great pains have been taken to establish a sense of place, and while the extended scene of characters running into a nightclub, pouring shots down their throats, and eventually spewing onto the stage might get a bunch of laughs, it seriously arrests the momentum of the farce. The feverish compulsion that overtakes the play from the entrance of Doctor Pinch to the glorious ending gets broken up by unnecessary slow-motion clowning, and it’s here I wished the director had trusted the mechanics of the play more.
Thankfully, the ending is allowed to work its magic. Some of Shakespeare’s plays have rather anticlimactic conclusions. But some, like The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, are utterly transcendent. I’d offer The Comedy of Errors as another example of a Shakespearean ending that requires only that the director get out of the way. Savage has wisely chosen to do so, and the effect is strangely moving after all this blatant silliness.
The cast equips itself rather well, especially the women. Suzannah McDonald is a riot as the Elle Woods-inspired courtesan and lovely as the Abbess. O’Keefe and Musolino work hard as the Syracuse twins, and the kind of mugging you sometimes get with Bell Shakespeare is kept to a bearable minimum.
Pip Runciman’s simple set, with its row of colourfully lit doors, works well, although more could be made with it in performance. It isn’t until the play is hurtling to its conclusion that the entrances and exits truly come in their own.
Despite some serious lags along the way, The Comedy of Errors is terrific fun, and would make a great introduction to Shakespeare. If it doesn’t quite live up to the MTC’s spectacular Magritte-influenced production from a number of years ago, it’s still a cracker of a night out.