With their take on The Comedy of Errors, Ed Hall’s Propeller have crafted yet another blissfully enjoyable production, one that blows the dust right off of one of Shakespeare’s earliest (and, some would say, creakiest) comedies and proves a more than worthy companion to the company’s startling Richard III. Despite its equivocal reputation within Shakespeare’s canon, The Comedy of Errors seems to have remained surprisingly popular with audiences, with several major stagings in the last ten years (including a rap version!) and a new production just announced for the National Theatre this Christmas. It will have to go some way to top this one, though. For those underwhelmed by Peter Hall’s bland Twelfth Night at the National Theatre Hall Jnr provides the antidote: a breathtakingly inventive, energetic and hilarious production that makes a flawed play shine like a masterpiece.
Like Twelfth Night, the Plautus-derived plot of The Comedy of Errors revolves around twins separated by shipwreck: two sets, in this case, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and their servants, both called Dromio, who wind up in Ephesus on the very same day as the Antipholus’s father, Egeon. Comic complications ensue, not least for Antipholus of E’s wife Adriana and her sister Luciana, who react in rather surprising ways to the odd behaviour of the man they believe to be their husband and brother-in-law.
Unsurprisingly, the innate silliness of the plot is embraced with wholehearted, hog-wild enthusiasm here. Where the ambience of the company’s Richard III was black and steely, suggestive of asylum and morgue, this time Michael Pavelka’s set and Ben Omerod’s lighting evoke nothing so much as a delightfully tacky package holiday resort, complete with fairy lights and graffiti, and mariachi music provided by a marvellously stoned-looking sombrero-sporting Chorus. Richard III’s violence was staged with gory Theatre of Blood-esque bravura; here the many beatings are presented as cartoonish slapstick, supplemented with comic sound effects. Snatches of pop songs (from “The Girl From Ipanema” to “Like A Prayer” to “Gold”) are judiciously - and sparingly - employed, and the company has great fun with some of the devices of Shakespearean comedy. When a character delivers an aside, for example, he steps out of the scene, leaving the rest of the action effectively “freeze-framed” (usually with the actors in the most ungainly positions possible). Speech delivered, the character then returns to his place to pick up the scene from where he left it.
Perfectly honed moments such as these exemplify the skill of this ensemble which is, as ever, beyond praise. The actors work together with consummate ease and expertise. Every character - no matter how minor - is vividly realised, and each performance is a gem, from Dugald Bruce-Lockhart and Sam Swainsbury as the Antipholi and Richard Frame and Jon Trenchard as the Dromios to Wayne Cater’s merchant Balthasar, Chris Myles’s whip-wielding, lavender-booted Abbess, and Kelsey Brookfield’s canny bunny girl courtesan, whose sensational cleavage catches the roving eye of Richard Clothier’s Duke. I think I laughed the hardest at David Newman’s Luciana - a coquette with a hip-flask and some mean martial-arts moves - and at Dominic Tighe’s fabulously accented (and frequently tumescent) Officer, who seldom succeeds in keeping the peace. Robert Hands puts on a superb display as Adriana, all the while giving a marvellous emotional truth to a character who’s often just presented as a shrew or a scold. And John Dougall’s Egeon is a singularly moving presence; the performance nicely complements his understated Clarence in Richard III, and the actor really makes you feel the weight of the character’s long, weary search for his lost family.
Throughout, the big set-piece scenes are orchestrated with sometimes jaw-dropping invention and aplomb, from Frame’s delivery of Dromio’s discourse on Nell the kitchen wench to Swainsbury’s late recapitulation of the plot, a priceless moment in which the production turns around to comment on some of its own strategies. And I can’t imagine seeing a more wildly enjoyable sequence this year than the production’s outrageous, tour-de-force take on the “exorcism” scene, in which Tony Bell’s conjourer Dr. Pinch - who’s re-imagined here as a dirty-minded tele-evangelist (think Robert Duvall in The Apostle crossed with Sir Les Patterson) - leads the company in a rousing chorus of “He Was Saved!” (Then there’s Bell’s exit scene, which I won’t spoil for you, except to say that it involves a very strategically placed sparkler.)
Propeller’s irreverent cheek and pick-and-mix approach never becomes tiresome because it’s tied, at base, to traditional values: care with verse-speaking, clarity of story-telling. And they never labour a conceit. Hall’s command of pace and rhythm is such that the production can move from the riotous to the reflective with ease. (Against all odds, the final reunions here carry much more emotional weight than those in the current NT Twelfth Night.) The company’s generous, inclusive spirit of play is infectious (the actors even provide musical entertainment during the interval), and, like Richard III, the production teems with so many great ideas and details that it practically demands to be seen more than once. This is a total theatre experience, and delightful in every department. Do not miss.
The production runs for 2 hours 20 minutes. It tours internationally, along with Richard III, until July. Newcastle next week; full details here.