The Comedy of Errors | Bell Shakespeare/State Theatre Company of South AustraliaLeft – Elena Carapetis, Eugene Gilfedder, Jude Henshall and Suzannah McDonald. Cover – Renato Musolina, Nathan O’ Keefe, Demitrious Sirilas, Septimus Caton and Hazem Shammas. Photos – Matt Nettheim

The Comedy of Errors seems to be in a midground category of Shakespeare’s plays, not a perpetual favourite which attracts stars to its famous roles like Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Macbeth, the bigger History plays or Comedies; those plays which are the most popular, or at any rate likely to be in a school curriculum. Nor, however, is it one of the rarely-performed plays, such as NIDA’s recent trotting out of Cymbeline or Richard II’s occasional conflation into “War of the Roses” adaptations. Like Titus Andronicus, it has some history of being held in lower critical regard yet bristles with a flair and a dangerous energy that still piques the interest of companies seeking to do some loud, bold Shakespeare with broad strokes and big, breath-catching moments.

This Bell Shakespeare Company co-production with the State Theatre Company of South Australia is exactly that: loud, bold and done with broad strokes. That is not, however, meant to damn with faint praise. While some critical reappraisal of the text in more recent times have noted that the play contains many thematic dualities and darker currents beneath the ebullient slapstick, there can be no denying that this one of the Shakespeare’s lightest, least complex plays. Well… at least complex in the multilayered and psychological sense, as the plot here take many twists and turns from its basic central premise which, as Rowan Atkinson once quipped in his famous Headmaster sketch: “The Comedy of Errors has the joke of two people looking like each other. Twice.”

Under the direction of Imara Savage, this production begins perhaps a bit incongruously with what is to follow, with a particularly harsh rendering of Egeon’s admittedly pathos-filled opening monologue, using border control detention imagery which, although not identifiable as overtly Australian, one can’t help but feel is a pointed reference to the renewed immigration policy scandals of the recent political cycle. It’s not an illogical topic to evoke given the text, yet it kicks the audience off on such a dour note that it takes a while for the very brassy, crass tone of the rest of the production to really sink in, especially considering that this opening angst is never fully revisited even when the character resurfaces at the end. The disjunction lies of course with Shakespeare, but it seems to be Savage’s desire to accentuate this rough transition as much as possible.

Tonal quibbles aside, this is a thoroughly fun rendition. As always with modern productions of Shakespearian comedies there is a tension between placing most of one’s faith in the audience following the inherent humour of the text’s own wordplay, versus the approach of propping it up with a lot of sight gags and associated slapstick. This staging clearly opts for the latter, but to good effect. Although with a simple set comprised solely of a row of doors that are recontextualised for each scene, the production aesthetic is primarily conveyed through sound and costume. Perhaps taking their cue from one of the play’s MacGuffins being a gold chain, designer Pip Runciman depicts the outrageous tastelessness of the monied nouveau riche in sin city, resplendent with bling and leopard print, big hair and loud wives set to throbbing club music, precarious heels, cocaine and vomit. “The Real Housewives of Jersey Shore do Kings Cross” if you will.

Although far from the first iteration I’ve seen, this production’s strong emphasis on differentiating the performances of the two sets of twins from their respective doubles led me for the first time to reflect on the rather perverse choice Shakespeare makes of having the characters never on stage together until the final reveal. It’s almost as though pair of twins could, up to that final denouement, be doubled by a single actor. Although the actors certainly look distinct enough that you have to allow for the typical suspension of disbelief, the usual convention of dressing adequately similar duos of actors in identical costumes can at least initially lead you wonder what it would be like to do it that way...

As the twins go further and further down the rabbit hole of confusion and compounded misunderstandings, they start to question their own sanity, particularly the visiting brother Antipholus of Syracuse, wondering if maybe the strangers claiming to be his wife, friends and creditors do know him after all, and maybe he’s mad or in a dream. The fact that there are no near-misses of the twins nearly meeting almost puts the audience in the same mindset.

Frenetic and boisterous, the show is staged with little in the way of set or props, but a lot of very exuberant and uproarious performances, the strong ensemble cast mostly making meals of their characters. Although all four of the principle twins are very strong, particular praise goes to Elena Carapetis as Adriana, long-suffering yet loud-mouthed wife to the sleazy Antipholus of Ephesus, and Jude Henshall as her tottering sister Luciana. Both women have superb comic timing, integrating a robust rendition of the text with a lot of unscripted “business” through their stereotype-mining yet hilariously well-observed characterisations. Their double-act in many respects outshines that of the central double pair. Also excellent – indeed, even somewhat scene-stealing – is Anthony Taufa in several minor roles including the Brandoesque Ephesian Duke. Never has eating a hot dog been so mesmerising.

While in no way a revolutionary take on one of Shakespeare’s less iconic plays, this is a deeply funny, highly diverting production that takes a vigorous, intentionally gauche approach that is almost certain to have you slapping your thighs in delight.

Bell Shakespeare and the State Theatre Company of South Australia present
The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare

Director Imara Savage

Venue: Playhouse | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 14 November – 7 December, 2013
Bookings: | 02 9250 7777

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