First stop on my recent Melbourne excursion was the Atheneum in Collins Street for the Australian Theatre Company's production of The Comedy of Errors. Since, by chance, I have happened upon two of the more obscure Shakespeare plays, King John and Henry VIII this year, I thought, why not see them all; so when I found that the Comedy of Errors was being performed in Melbourne during my visit I decided to add another to my list.
The play dates from about 1592. It concerns the confusion arising from the presence of two sets of identical twins, each set unaware of the other, in Ephesus. Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, were separated in a shipwreck when they were very young. Their servants, both named Dromio, were separated with them.
The introduction to the Penguin edition of the play says:
Modern productions and scholars, as if taking their cue from the play’s good-natured laughter at erroneous perceptions, have re-examined the play through theatrically innovative and historically revisionist perspectives to overturn older prejudices against it as a mechanical farce of mistaken identities representing a one-off piece of Shakespeare juvenilia.
The Melbourne production, I think correctly, presented the play as a mechanical farce of mistaken identities. The problem of presenting the identical twins was overcome by having the characters in masks which owed something to the comedia del arte, and something to cartoons and the muppets. As dressed and masked the sets of twins were pretty much indistinguishable .
The twins named Antipholus, are the children of Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse and Emilia (who has become Lady Abess at Ephesus. At the begining, we learn that Egeon has been sentenced to death by the Duke of Ephesus, as he has entered Syracuse contrary to restrictions imposed because of a trade dispute between the two cities. As written, Egeon has a very lengthy speech in which he sets out the misfortunes of his family and his search for his son as an explanation of his presence in defiance of the ban. The duke relents and gives Egeon time to find the money for a fine in lieu of excecution
The penguin editor says:
And in the hands of an actor who can tune the rhetorical peaks and valleys of Shakespeare’s masterly piece of verse-narrative to Egeon’s turmoiled recollection, the story can grip theatre spectators completely, as modern productions have often shown.
This production passed over this possibility by breaking the speech into sections and interpolated between later scenes. This became a running joke, as Egeon was dragged across the stage to execution, time and again, reciting his apparently never ending story. The joke worked well; so I will need to await another production to see if the speech can be completely gripping. At the moment I am sceptical about this.
The only trouble with presenting the play as knockabout farce and slapstick, is that, although it is Shakespeare's shortest play it makes for quite a long real life cartoon. I don't say this as a criticism of the production, more of the play, or at least way Tom and Jerry and the like have changed our expectations of the content and pace of slapstick.
It is wonderful that Melbourne has retained so many of its traditional theatres, and although the Atheneum looks somewhat run down it was a pleasure to see the play there.
There was one set, having the appearance of a roughly sketched building. Names were attached to it indicating that it, or its various doors, represented different locations. It was well designed to accommodate those scenes in which the participants can hear, but not see, each other in a convincing way.
The costumes and masks, while elaborate and well made, complemented this style giving the whole production a rough hewn appearance and feel.
The play was well acted throughout. Notwithstanding all the knockabout action, the words were spoken with clarity by everyone. It's probably not a play for great performances; and no one member of the cast seemed to stand out.
The Residents at the Sydney Theatre company are now performing the play at The Wharf; it will be fun to see what they make of it.