The Comedy of Errors review: slice of Renaissance silliness embraces chaos

·2-min read
 (RSC / Pete Le May)
(RSC / Pete Le May)

Shakespearian twin-based complications might be hilarious from the outside but, as the RSC’s production of The Comedy of Errors argues, they’re not so funny when you’re living through them. Director Phillip Breen fills this staging of Shakespeare’s early comedy with moments of yawning horror – impressively, without stinting on belly laughs.

The plot is a neat slice of Renaissance silliness. Two sets of identical twins (two masters, two servants) are separated in infancy in a shipwreck. Dromio and his master Antipholus of Syracuse (Jonathan Broadbent and Guy Lewis) come to Ephesus in search of their missing brothers. But of course, everywhere they go, they’re taken for their lost relatives. Wife Adrianna (a standout Naomi Sheldon) welcomes her husband’s doppelganger to a flirtatious lunch; goldsmith Angelo (a laugh-raising Baker Mukasa) gives the man who he takes for a prime customer a rich golden chain. Then, of course, their real counterparts show up and chaos reigns.

When Antipholus of Ephesus (Rowan Polonski) starts to wonder if he’s going mad, the whole cast breaks out in a primal yell and the lighting turns a cold, stormy blue. The edges of this world are cracking, always ready to break under the strain of each ludicrous plot twist.

 (RSC / Pete Le May)
(RSC / Pete Le May)

Composer Paddy Cunneen’s music does so much to add to this production’s sense of wildness and strangeness. The cast’s unaccompanied voices create the swirling sea of the shipwreck, or the grandeur of a ceremonial meeting. Max Jones’s design is a thing of beauty too, a tumble of geometrical blocks accented in maritime shades of teal. But this aesthetic richness can be shattered at any moment by silliness, like a plushy gilded chair with a whoopie cushion hidden in its depths.

Breen’s production is serious about being funny, which means each scene is carefully designed to squeeze every inch of laughter out of its audience. A fiddly, punning exchange about hair loss is made baldly hilarious by the introduction of a waiter with an errant toupee. Another unpalatable speech comparing different countries to female body parts is played like it’s a stand up gig that’s tanking: “Oh come on, the jokes are 400 years old, help me out here” pleads poor Dromio of Syracuse.

The Comedy of Errors is sometimes an infuriating play to watch: inevitably, given that it spins life-or-death consequences from misunderstandings that could be cleared up in five minutes. But even Shakespeare’s usually neat ending can’t sweep away the chaos here. How could you return to normal when you’ve been accused of adultery, or found your lost father? Breen’s staging captures how petrifying it is to have the world you live in dismantled in front of you; faced with the shattered pieces, all you can do is laugh.

Barbican, until Dec 31; barbican.org.uk

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