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The Comedy of Errors: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is as reliable a supplier of laughter as anything on the stage. With identical twins as masters and another pair as their much-put-upon servants it offers a significant ratcheting up of the capacity for comic confusion than we find, say, in the much over-praised One Man, Two Guvnors — and is funnier for it.
Mind you, the success of any production must depend to a degree on the hiring of actors who look alike. The revival at Stratford — the first play in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Shipwreck Trilogy — does well with the clowning Dromios of Felix Hayes (Ephesus) and Bruce Mackinnon (Syracuse). Their lugubrious voices and Tintin-like quiffs jutting from Benny-style woolly hats help greatly in presenting one as mirror to the other.
Their respective masters, however, played by Stephen Hagan and Jonathan McGuinness — the first a strapping lad, the other not — leave us marvelling how anyone could ever mix them up.
But with so much disbelief in need of suspension in this play, I suppose a bit more hardly makes much difference . . .
Directed by the Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi, the modern-dress production gives a dark tinge to the comedy. Its setting, superbly summoned in the designs of Jon Bausor, is a gloomy, oil-can-strewn dockside over which hangs the arm of huge crane, soon seen hauling a container on to the stage from which emerge the master and servant from Syracuse at the head of what becomes a comical parade of fellow visitors to Ephesus, including a woman flogging fake Gucci bags.
Before that, though, comes the shocking interrogation of the Antipholuses’ dad Egeon (Nicholas Day) by the Duke (Sandy Grierson) and his military goons in a nasty display of torture by water involving a tropical fish tank. It’s as well Egeon gets to do most of the talking in between duckings — the longest speech in Shakespeare, in fact — since his interrogator’s thick Scottish accent is all but impenetrable.
Happily, things lighten up as the confusions start, with well-judged performances by Kirsty Bushell as the Ephesus Antipholus’s baffled and enraged wife Adriana and Emily Taaffe as her pert sister Luciana helping to keep laughter coming.
But the suggestion that here is a cruel and violent society is rarely far away, in the terror, for instance, of the goldsmith Angelo (Sargon Yelda) in being unable to pay money owed to a creditor clearly far more Mafia godfather than Merchant (Kevin McMonagle).
Presented by an ensemble company also performing Twelfth Night (to be reviewed here next week) and The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors can be seen at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until October 6. For tickets call 0844 800 1110 (www.rsc.org.uk).