Brighton Festival 2017
Seven men directed by Peter Stickney parade on a wooden promontory by Morgan Brind, constructed by Alan Bowles, a neatly-constructed period set suggesting houses and a door swinging to at the side for slamming shut in someone’s face. Bright costumes by Polly Laurence. Alex Beetschen’s arrangements prove ideal on a sweltering outdoor afternoon.
The romp’s handed on. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men take over the Globe On Tour slot at the Brighton Open Air Theatre to deliver another early comedy following Globe’s Two Gentlemen of Verona last year.
Seven men directed by Peter Stickney parade on a wooden promontory by Morgan Brind which Alan Bowles constructed, a neatly-constructed period set suggesting houses and a door swinging to at the side for slamming shut in someone’s face. Back to basics, no 1960s high-viz psychedelia for instance. There’s lightly-gusted research here: a cloth-covered set of side exits stage right. Its grey gets relieved by patchwork blues and pinks, so neatly packages a period tour too. Bright costumes by Polly Laurence to match bring an Elizabethan touring company to close proximity, cheek by jowl as it were. And did I mention music? As a capella roisterers this company’s very appealing. Alex Beetschen’s arrangements prove ideal on a sweltering outdoor afternoon.
The Comedy of Errors from 1594 is more sophisticated than TGOV, deriving from Plautus and a lot funnier, though slapping servants around is almost abusive as the earlier play’s attempted rape.
Not that it starts that way. Egeon merchant of Syracuse (Barney Healy-Smith) is to be beheaded for showing up n Ephesus though Duke Solinus (Danann McAleer) attempting to ameliorate his own laws begs hi tell his story. Egeon’s searching for two halves of a set of identical twins, the other back in Syracuse. These are Antipholous and servant Dromio, the first one of twins both called – Antipholous and the latter two Dromios born to serve them, bought at birth. Egeon doesn’t know it but his own set have followed him and the other set fetched up here when they were sundered from him along with their mother twenty-five years ago.
Action moves to the twins accidentally wreadking havoc with each other the two Dromios with different isntructios festvihnup with the wrong twin master, all identically dressed. It just so happens that Antipholous of Syracuse has a wife and her sister lives with them. She calls the wrong one home who’s pleased to be entertained upstairs for supper (in the National’s 2012 production this meant full-blown sex; the husband meanwhile resorts to a tavern courtesan, with ring gifts suggesting the same). Here, with the company were limited to two-hour traffic brisk in action as George Howard’s Adriana plead first one husband then another first to come home and then to return to his wits when he points out he was locked out – the faintly Kate-Shrew Adriana wanted complete privacy and the two Dromios unwittingly insulting each other through the locked door provides the traditional laughs.
This production makes much of the Syracuse pair bewildered at their fate, one having fallen in love with Alasdair James McLaughlin’s Luciana (she also doubles as that courtesan) and Dromio’s promised to a vast cook. Some of Shakespeare’s finest early imagery on water drops and said cook being a vast map (much of countries and Netherlands here) then tallow candle to outlives the world are trailed here. Joseph Phelps (Antipholous of Syracuse) and Barney Healy-Smith (Dromio of Syracuse) keep up a patter providing the richest linguistic fare of the play.
James Sidwell‘s excellent as the commanding married and highly-respected Antipholous of Ephesus, and Robert Elkin’s Dromio of Ephesus superb at repeating the incomprehensible conversation he’s just had. Further confusion surrounds a chain Antipholous of Ephesus orders, delivered to his unknowing twin, the money dispatched to the right Dromio and the wrong one berated for not delivering it as Antipholous of Ephesus is then arrested for non-payment. When both sets of twins are pursued, one escaping prison, the other managing sanctuary with Alasdair James McLaughlin’s Abbess once called Emilia, you know finally the tangles and cat’s cradles will fall tumbling. But who is Emelia?
If Sidwell’s voice is the most commanding, both Dromios too Elkin and Healy-Smith with different pitches produce sterling performances, as does Phelps. McLaughlin’s women are well-etched and commanding as well they might be, accented with seraphic disdain and East End London entitlement. Howard’s Adriana is fine too, and McAleer’s fine cameos including Pinch the hapless doctor (no onstage singeing here!) are various and judged to – a pinch.
There’s necessary loss in a septet, the Duke and Lucia having to vanish at the end, and some loss of amplitude. but as excellent outdoor theatre it approaches the quality of the Globe and others on tour. Most important, it never clutters, direction supremely clear in this most tangled of works. It’s avowedly a stripped-authentic production which narrows scope and impact just a little. This company should grow, both in numbers (eight or nine?) but in imagination and reach they’re already consummate; they’ll doubtless vie with the Globe On Tour soon. And there’s that tang of the time to savour, uniquely theirs.