“How ill agrees it with your gravity to counterfeit thus grossly with your slave”
Ephesus is London, Syracuse is somewhere in the West Indies (I think) and we’re in the modern day: Dominic Cooke’s production of The Comedy of Errors moves into the Olivier at the National Theatre for an epically long run of a thoroughly updated version of this play. One of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it’s a classic tale of mistaken identities as two sets of twins separated at birth by a shipwreck rocket around the same city causing absolute mayhem as wives, merchants and policemen get tangled in a confused mess over the course of a manic day. We took in a late preview of this show which opens officially on Tuesday 29th.
Though it is Lenny Henry’s face on the poster, this is Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry’s show. As Adriana and Luciana, here a pair of loaded Essex girls, they ooze buckets of attitude as they sit through manicures and massages whilst bemoaning their menfolk and spend the vast majority of the play in some seriously impressive towering heels, even managing to run round the stage in them several times. Blakely’s comic timing is nigh on perfect as she rages through Ephesus/London but also plays a depth to this woman, all too aware of her husband’s philandering and her final contemplative gaze at her husband is a mightily powerful moment. Terry is transformed with straightened blonde locks and a delightfully brash manner which milks every conceivable laugh from her lines: together they are just dynamite.
Also working effectively together are the Syracusan pair: Lenny Henry is able to use his well-established broad comedic skills effectively here as Antipholus and with Lucian Msamati, on absolute top form as Dromio, they slip in their groove together perfectly and get away with some outrageous ethnic stereotyping which is often hilarious. But the play rests on all sides of the equation working equally and Chris Jarman and Daniel Poyser still have work to do to match those around them. Jarman is just a bit too serious, never really seeming to stretch any comic muscle, and I couldn’t help wonder if Poyser was feeling uncomfortable onstage as he never really seemed at ease, something exacerbated by the oddity of casting him as an identical twin to Msamati who must have 10 years on him and oozed natural stage presence throughout.
Bunny Christie’s set is an absolute wonder, fully utilising the height of the Olivier stage to great effect to create an interlocking and ever-changing set of buildings which somehow manage to look completely different, a proper work of genius. Cooke does over-egg the staging from time to time though with some simply insane additions and I’m not sure how successful the incorporation of a band to cover the scene changes was, feeling more like a lazy lift from One Man Two Guvnors than a thought-through integrated aspect of the show. But the updating does work rather well for the most part – brushing over the purchasing of servants and keeping the Dromios in a life of servitude of course, and the fact that the two set of protagonists have completely different accents – the choice to have Egeon’s opening speech largely acted out as a backdrop cleverly inserts drama into what can be a mind-numbing piece of exposition.
So something of a work in progress that needs to do a little work to even out the tone both within the production – the first shift to farce comes extremely abruptly and also within the cast, but one which is actually quite effective in its own way. I hate it when reviewers compare productions of shows but the Propeller version of this show still looms so large in my mind that it couldn’t help but suffer by comparison for me in rarely proving to be as relentlessly amusing, especially in the first half. But the National’s version plays its trump card in the final scene which becomes really quite touching, mainly due to the extraordinary work of Pamela Nomvete as Emilia, here a councillor at the Abbey Clinic. She works in real pathos to the mass of revelatory information and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the reconciliation and family group embrace. I’d say this is a fairly strong reworking of Shakespeare’s play that whilst it is more of a crowd-pleaser than a revelatory piece of theatre, does what it does rather well and in the case of the women, exceptionally well.