The Comedy of Errors is a classic farce of mistaken identity arising from two sets of identical twin brothers, separated at birth and unaware of each other’s existence in Syracuse and Ephesus. The brothers are identically named and mismatched, with one Dromio apiece each acting as servant to his respective Antipholus. Upon one master and servant travelling to the others’ city, they continuously almost cross paths, each being mistaken for the other in turn, which leads to a hilarious series of misunderstandings, accusations, and misdirected romantic and legal entanglements.
Although not quite as much of a high-rotation favourite as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, its repertory stablemate from this Pop-up Globe season, Shakespeare’s even more outrageous The Comedy of Errors is possibly the most perfect play to showcase this extraordinary performance venue. In collaboration with cutting-edge academic research to recreate the second historical Globe Theatre with what are believed to be far more accurate dimensions than those of London’s older, permanent “replica” theatre opened in 1997, the Pop-up Globe is a temporary venue constructed from undisguised metal scaffolding around a more traditional looking wooden stage and balconied backdrop.
Just as in Shakespeare’s day, the audience can buy covered seats in the round three-level structure that encircles the large thrust stage, the more expensive “aristocratic” seats being closest to it, and with the most exclusive boxes effectively part of the rear of the stage itself. Of course price-tiers in seating is nothing unfamiliar to modern audiences, but it is the cheapest category of admission that is part of what makes this Globe Theatre recreation so special, and that is the “groundling” tickets.
Standing in the open-air yard around the shoulder-height stage, this is immersive theatre at its best, with the action so alive, vital and feeding off the energy of the live audience that it feels more like some kind of ballsy theatrical rock concert than a trip to the playhouse. This is not to knock those who want or need to sit down, and just about any seat in this theatre is a good one by design. But if your knees are up to it and you really want the most uniquely Shakespearian experience, rocking out as a groundling is definitely where it’s at.
As much as this is a grand experiment in reviving the performance conditions and audience experience of attending a Jacobean theatre, Pop-up Globe’s ethos is not, however, to try to Frankenstein together a “museum piece” approximation of historically accurate performances of these plays. While adhering to period-appropriate restrictions by eschewing modern theatrical effects or electrical lighting (apart from approximating permanent daylight for evening shows), the productions themselves are in many respects quite modern, and perhaps none more so than this rendition of The Comedy of Errors.
Arriving in Ephesus wearing Hawaiian shirts and the trappings of modern American tourists, the Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio seem to have come from the modern western world to a land of various mismatched “foreign” cultures. The opening scene alone presents a would-be execution at the hands of what appear to be a dojo’s worth of screaming jihadist ninjas, with the presiding Duke in a crescent-adorned turban flourishing a gold-plated handgun, and an executioner wearing some kind of orthodox Christian mitre. All this madness culminates in brandishing machetes at prisoners in American-style orange prison jumpsuits. It is a melting pot of influences, and the play continues in much the same manner, with one of the few consistent aesthetics including the identical pairs of twins and their womenfolk wearing what might be described as vaguely historical Middle Eastern garb befitting the Turkish setting, a nod carried also by the sudden appearance of a gaggle of Whirling Dervishes later in the piece.
Much like this mash-up of costuming and props across cultures and eras, the approach to the material injects quite a lot of asides and modern references into the dialogue. As with any good contemporary company taking on Shakespeare’s text with a healthy dose of inventive irreverence, especially his comedies, director Dr. Miles Gregory gleefully takes the Bard’s most over-the-top farcical material and injects it with a mountain of inventive stage business and choreography that veritably zooms the production along.
However, the aforementioned inclusion of asides and gags using a present-day idiom appears at a seemingly much higher rate than in Gregory’s other concurrent comedy production in this season, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, suggesting a somewhat different dramaturgical approach. Perhaps rehearsals just worked out differently while improvising the heightened amount of physical humour, and it is certainly not raised as a criticism per se, but the modernisms seem more aggressively peppered in here. That said, for every contemporary note that elicits a laugh, there is a great joy in seeing so many 400-year old jokes inspire equal or greater merriment amongst the audience.
The production is highly energetic, frenetically so at times, with the slapstick factor dialled up to eleven. Indeed, this production even uses literal slap sticks, an antiquarian trick prop that appears like a short club or truncheon, and uses two hinged wooden surfaces striking together to produce impressive live “whack!” sounds when the twin Antipholuses comically beat their hapless respective manservants. The antics are crude, lewd, and thoroughly delightful, with some very creative utilisation of the Globe’s multi-dimensional stage area, engaging with the audience in a manifold number of ways, positioned as they are practically all around the actors.
With a supremely well-oiled cast it almost feels churlish to single anyone out in such an exceptionally funny show, especially as these actors’ performances are so supportive of each other, elevating everyone’s work to the common goal of maximising the mirth. Yet one can’t help but make special note of Blake Kubena and Ryan Bennett as the two hapless Dromios, whose increasingly antic states are truly hilarious to behold as they bear the brunt of the play’s spiraling misunderstandings. Romy Hooper and Serena Cotton also form a good double act as sisters Adriana and Luciana, while Stephen Lovatt and Nigel Langley are uproarious in multiple smaller oddball roles.
In a comedy sketch as an embittered headmaster, Rowan Atkinson once dryly quipped, “The Comedy of Errors has the joke of two people looking like each other. Twice.” While intentionally dismissive and reductive, it is true that this one of Shakespeare’s less overtly sophisticated plays, yet it is nevertheless a jewel of seemingly frantic nonsense arranged with great precision, and hiding some surprising pathos in its undercurrents. This wonderful production will tickle the ribs of even the most dour theatregoer, and keep them off-balance long enough to reach the genuine emotion of unexpected reunions at its heartfelt conclusion. It is an enriching and invigorating show that will leave you in stitches.
Pop-up Globe presents
The Comedy of Errors
by William Shakespeare
Director Dr. Miles Gregory
enue: Pop-up Globe | Entertainment Quarter Moore Park NSW
Dates: from 30 August 2018 (see website for details)
Tickets: from $29.51