The RSC’s Shipwreck trilogy is subtitled “What country friends is this?” and in the production of The Comedy of Errors directed by the Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi, it’s a question that the audience might easily find themselves asking. Set in a modern industrial port full of smugglers and traders in dodgy goods, governed by a dangerous and unpredictable ruler, the threat is real. Much is made of the comic potential of oil drums and packing cases, and there’s plenty of slapstick. The violence of the tableau presented at the interval, though, meant that when I saw it the audience remained completely silent until the house lights were fully up.
The grimness of the setting must reflect the Director’s experience, but is it really called for? Surely the play asks enough serious questions about identity and relationships for it to deserve its place, without making it unnecessarily violent.
The Comedy of Errors is a play usually overlooked in favour of more mature comedies like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night. And it sounds both heavy going and inconsequential: an adaptation of Plautus’s Roman comedy Menaechmi, a farce, all plot.
But Shakespeare made some bold changes to the Latin original, not least the addition of a second pair of twins to make the confusion even greater and the questions about identity sharper. Shakespeare’s play is brilliantly plotted, keeping all the balls spinning. In his hand it’s not just a breathless romp: there are wonderful moments where he stops the action of the play and connects with the audience. Here, you can see Shakespeare becoming Shakespeare, and its the success or failure of these moments that for me make a successful production.
The first of those still moments comes early in the play. Shakespeare changes the balance from Plautus: in Menaechmi we first meet the brother who is “at home”. But Shakespeare introduces us first to the other brother, Antipholus of Syracuse, who in the violent setting of this production, like us wants to know “What country friends is this?” In this production Jonathan McGuinness, left alone on stage, steps forward and directly addresses the audience:
I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself.
A little later, the wife of the other brother reminds us of that image of the drop of water. Instead of adding a drop to the ocean, she talks about the impossibility of removing one drop to divide man and wife.
For know, my love, as easy mayst thou fall
A drop of water in the breaking gulf,
And take unmingled thence that drop again
Without addition or diminishing
As take from my thyself, and not me too.
In Plautus’s play the Courtesan is the main female part, but Shakespeare chooses to concentrate on Adriana, who instead of a scold, becomes at times a poignantly neglected wife in a largely loveless marriage. It’s this characterisation, combined with the potential for comedy, that has ensured distinguished actresses like Diana Rigg, Judi Dench and Zoe Wanamaker take the part.
Shakespeare introduces a sister for the wife, a counterpoint to her sister with her own serious view of marriage, who also completes the symmetry of the play as the love interest for the visiting Antipholus. I was puzzled by the costuming of Emily Taaffe as Luciana, who appears little more than a child making Antipholus’s declaration of love seem inappropriate. A pity, because although it’s not Romeo and Juliet, you can see how Shakespeare could develop into the author of the great romantic drama:
Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smother’d in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words’ deceit….
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me, then, and to your power I’ll yield….
Sing , siren, for thyself, and I will dote;
Spread o’er the silver waves thy golden hairs;
And as a bed I’ll take them, and there lie,
And, in that glorious supposition, think
He gains by death that hath such mean to die.
Slowing down the frenetic comic scenes, Shakespeare also includes a wonderful comic sequence: the master/servant double act, so like a music hall sketch, where the servant “finds countries” in the fat kitchen wench who is chasing him. In this production Jonathan McGuinness and Bruce Mackinnon thoroughly enjoy this fun exchange.
By the end, the audience for this production has as usual with this play forgotten its earlier seriousness, celebrating the joyous reunion of the family. But The Comedy of Errors is also worth considering for those moments where Shakespeare begins to show his ability as a creator of real characters and situations.
The RSC photographs are taken by Keith Pattison and copyright of the Royal Shakespeare Company