As part of their Shakespeare 400 celebrations, acclaimed theatre company Antic Disposition have turned their attention to a rarely played classic, The Comedy of Errors. The original play centres around two pairs of twins (with the same names: Antipholus & Dromio) who were separated in a shipwreck – one pair ending up in Ephesus with Antipholus’ mother, the others with Antipholus’ father in Syracuse. After some years, the Syracusian pair set out on a voyage to find their respective brothers. At the same time that they end up in Ephesus, so does Antipholus of Syracuse’s father, Egeon, who is immediately threatened with death, as Syracusian merchants are forbidden entry into Ephesus. From then on there are multiple cases of mistaken identity that lead to no end of confusion!
This production has events transposed to the 1920s, taking inspiration from the Billy Wilder hit film Some Like It Hot and setting it in a hotel called Bay of Ephesus. The courtesan of Shakespeare’s original becomes a Marilyn Monroe style jazz singer (backed by a live band), and Solinus (the Duke of Ephesus) more like a mob boss. Antipholus & Dromio of Ephesus run the hotel, with Dromio serving as a bell hop. This is an inspired idea that works perfectly on every level.
After a couple of weeks in France, the production now has a limited run at the historic Gray’s Inn Hall near Chancery Lane. It’s an extremely fitting location, as the play was first performed there as part of the Christmas celebrations in 1594.
There is little by way of a set, with the band’s instruments set up at the west end, a lit up ‘HOTEL’ sign & a door to the ‘Phoenix Suite’. Instead, the show relies on the actors to tell the story through Shakespeare’s own words & the physicality implied in the text. Charlie Baptist’s costumes are incredible – from the men’s suits to the stunning flapper dresses, it really does feel like you’ve been transported back to the Roaring Twenties.
The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play, and is largely written in verse form, so the idea of integrating music is a solid one – it doesn’t detract from the original play, rather it enhances it as an overall piece. The chosen songs from the Some Like It Hot soundtrack work perfectly within the production, with Runnin’ Wild a real highlight.
In choosing to present this play in such a format, it gave the casting team a more difficult task than usual; they not only needed brilliant actors, but good jazz musicians also. It’s fair to say that they rose to the challenge & excelled themselves – the company is a thrilling combination of talented actor-musicians with a knack for physical comedy. On top of this, the two sets of twins are about as alike as possible, allowing the audience to both follow the plot and believe that they are indeed twins.
As such, William de Coverly & Alex Hooper (Antipholus) and Keith Higinbotham & Andrew Venning (Dromio) give the standout performances, for me. The sheer amount of energy they require to commit to the slapstick involved in their roles, and their superb comic timing make them two double acts to be reckoned with.
My verdict? A classic production of a classic play – farcical & fun with a good dollop of jazz, making it an instant favourite.
The Comedy of Errors runs at Gray’s Inn Hall until 1 September 2016. The remaining shows are all sold out, however a number of restricted view seats (£15 cash) are available when the doors open – returns may also be available.