Review: The Comedy of Errors, RSC via Digital Theatre

“Are my discourses dull? Barren my wit?”

Digital Theatre specialises in providing recordings of plays, captured as-live and available to watch either online or to download onto your computer. They have established links with some top theatre companies and so is building up an interesting collection of plays for viewing. I became aware of Digital Theatre back at Christmastime, and downloaded my first play (Far From The Madding Crowd). It has however remained on my hard-drive unwatched for a number of reasons. But with the offer to get a free download of the RSC’s The Comedy of Errors through the Times newspaper, I decided to revisit the site and actually get round to watching something.

There’s been a lot of debate about the merits of videoed theatre over live theatre: my personal view is that there’s ample room for both in the world. The recordings are there to supplement the live experience, not replace it, something that seems to be lost on much of the commenters in the press. These kind of initiatives, along with the National Theatre’s cinema showings of some plays, offer a great opportunity to expand the audience for these shows, and whilst the frisson of live performance may be lost, I can guarantee that whoever saw Phèdre at the cinema would have had a much better view of the faces of the actors than I did from the circle of the Lyttleton.

This Comedy of Errors, presented by Told By An Idiot and the RSC last year, was part of a project to get young people into Shakespeare and toured around a number of schools and community centres, as well as a run in Stratford itself (this particular performance was captured at Clapham Community Centre). It is one of the Bard’s sunnier works, featuring two sets of identical brothers separated at birth into matching pairs, one of each. When chance shipwrecks one set into the land where the other resides, the scene is then set for a whirl of comic misunderstandings and mistaken identities.

It’s all huge amounts of fun. Shakespeare’s text has been stripped down to its basics, leaving much room for modern references, singing, spoon-playing, music, even a spot of tapdancing to enliven proceedings and keep an incredible level of exuberant energy throughout the 80 minutes. There’s much physical comedy to keep the kids happy, and textual references to other plays that will raise a chuckle from the parents (Dromio, Dromio, wherefore art thou Dromio…), and it was hard to keep the smile from my face for almost the entire show.

One of its strengths is that it has a very strong cast, drawn from the RSC company and the quality shows throughout. Everyone is good, I particularly enjoyed Christine Entwisle’s Adriana, Richard Katz’s Antipholus and Dyfan Dwfor and Jonjo O’Neill’s appealing Dromios, but as everyone pitches in whether onstage or off, playing instruments or interactive props, (the water-spraying rock was rather amusing), the enthusiasm is hard to resist. Even when the fun occasionally threatened to overwhelm the storytelling, the cast were able to pull the audience back into the narrative without losing that all-important sense of mischievousness.

It does seem an odd choice for inclusion in the Digital Theatre catalogue as it is such an imaginative and physical piece of theatre which constantly interacts with its audience. This is such an integral part of the performance, and one which would vary from night to night, so to choose something so variable to record seems a little perverse. The answer may possibly lie in the fact that this production is being given another short run in Stratford this summer, and so should people be so desirous, they can book their tickets right now.

In any case, I really enjoyed watching this, perfect on a rainy afternoon in my flat and all the better for being free! I’m a fan of the concept of Digital Theatre in general, though I do doubt its wider appeal, considering that you are limited to watching things on your computer via their specific player.

Running time: 80 minutes
Note: The offer to download the play for free has now expired, but you can still purchase it for £8.99 and choose between streaming it or downloading it and watching it at your leisure on the player on your computer

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