FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Mark Brailsford and with costumes designed by Sean Chapman this family-oriented production is segmented by a music system directed by Brailsford. The set’s by ‘Ethel Mermen’. The production’s in (Ancient Greek) period: with crisp white and bright shades. There’s a seductive backdrop panel of blue sky and Mediterranean turquoise sea, with two white Ionic columns bedecked with leaves resembling musical notes. The BOAT team supply standard facilities and lighting.
Brighton’s Open Air Theatre is hotting up with the weather. We’ve already had a thirsty slake of Shakespeare. There’s often either short-run experimental comedy productions or returning companies like The Lord Chamberlain’s Men’s Tempest during the Festival; and here the Brighton Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors.
Those who saw their A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year will know their style: Mark Brailsford’s company combine an opulent look (here Sean Chapman’s work courtesy of Gladrags) with a brisk sometimes headlong style beautifully paced for loping shadows in a June evening.
The set’s by ‘Ethel Mermen’. Right. Why not Sappho? The production’s certainly in (Ancient Greek) period, which our south-coast Mediterranean moment fits perfectly: lots of crisp white and bright shades. There’s a seductive backdrop panel of blue sky and Mediterranean turquoise sea, with two white Ionic columns going nowhere just for show, bedecked with leaves resembling musical notes.
The Comedy of Errors is the shortest and once thought earliest Shakespeare play. It’s not that early, dating from 1594. Though modelled on Plautus – with the classical twenty-four-hour action observed – it’s a fantastically compressed plot. There’s economical idiocies, an attitude towards women close to The Taming of a Shrew, violent slave-abuse and a finale of double-takes. No wonder it’s so popular. Well, perhaps for other reasons.
Poor merchant Aegeon of Syracuse has washed up on Ephesus and Paul Moriarty’s regal Solinus, Duke of Ephesus has to remind him that because of an anti-treaty he’s to die. Aegeon is permitted to relate his story: he lost a wife Aemilia and identical twin son at sea, together with a twin servant – twins bought and placed in service to the twin sons. Both merchant sons are called Antipholus – to help identification (groan); both servant twins, Dromio (and yes there were mutters of ‘wherefore art thou, Dromio?’ amongst seated thespians). One each remained to Aegeon but they went off seven years since to Corinth to seek out their twins, and haven’t been heard of. In fact they’ve just arrived here and because they came over from Corinth, not Syracuse, they’re safe. Andrew Crouch plays Antipholus of Syracuse as he’s known, and his Dromio’s Brailsford himself.
This is a quick-witted almost family production. There’s a few sexy but not really sexual references. In many productions the danger of a wife unwittingly enjoying a puzzled brother whilst he husband sulkily goes off the rails isn’t brought out, nor the wife’s importuning sexual attempts to bring her husband home. A little’s cut from the Courtesan’s role but the plot’s clear, the language for the most part projected and the fabulously bright costumes a delight. Very few props are needed. There’s sound system that blasts seraphic music every time a holy character’s about to walk on. A doorframe and bench, otherwise the ripe greenery of Adriana’s dress, Lucia’s blue, the white togas of the young masters and the servile friar brown of the servants contrast with the fantastical red-piped white goldsmith garb and a similar pink confection for Balthazar (one of Nathan Ariss’ several roles, here fruity and enormous fun).
And the other two? Here from birth. The merchant’s other son Antipholus (now) of Ephesus (Duncan Drury) has been in service to the Duke seven years, the length the other brother’s been in Corinth. His Dromio’s the puckish and sprightly Stewart Barham. No-one knows who they really are, or the fact that the other pair have washed up. Added to which Antipholus of Ephesus has married Adriana (Kerren Garner) who has an unmarried sister Luciana (Sophia Behn, expressive of wifely duty but suddenly falling for the ‘husband’) who enjoys eloquence and constantly chides her jealous splenetic sister, enjoining her to submit to her lord. Adriana has answers to that. Like get some experience first.
Behn edges from the smugness of her role to a bewildered fragility only held in check by her wit and eloquence. Garner progressively warms to her role with a vocal grounding by the end which matches her husband’s, and can yank him from a courtesan’s cheeky gaze.
Naturally everything goes wrong, the servants and masters mistake each other, a wife mistakes the wrong twin and takes him to her upper room (this is often sexually played out, but not here) whereas the real master and servant are refused entry, or even to be seen being judged imposters. Added to which there’s Brandon Jewell’s uproarious camp Goldsmith who gives an ordered necklace to the wrong brother and arrests the right one for not giving him the money, and so on.
The plot’s pithy, endlessly abusive of servants in the old Plautan way and we laugh heartily as he’s beaten up by each brother for getting as hopelessly confused as they, without of course anyone guessing why. Added to which when Antipholus of Ephesus doesn’t get his home oats he repairs to Sophie Flack the courtesan, gets a ring off her and we presume enjoys her company as his wife’s unwittingly entertaining his brother. Dromio of Ephesus too is being pursued by the offstage household’s spherical maid with country matters on her mind. Philippa Hammond as quick-change Luce the more attractive servant feists way at this as well as a truculent merchant earlier on and with gravitas vocal clarity and projection as… Aemilia, now abbess. Yes she’s been here all along too. By the time one set f twins lodge with her yet appear outside where the entire populace from the Duke down are assembled… Come and see.
Drury and Crouch enjoy a twin clarity, rationale, vocal projection timing and even look that make their respective acts treasurable. Their timbres are similar, though Drury the one with military experience is believable as one who ahs authority and a wife. Crouch plays his Antipholus as an assured adventurer but not one who has the assurance of a landed man. It’s a subtle distinction.
They ground the production in a believable cascade of errors. Barham, the Ephesus Dromio (indentured to Drury) enjoys a complete identification wit this kind of role: whether whining, flinching farting or floundering under a kick of instance, Barham’s facial expressions and physical contortions ar remarkable. He made an indelible impression last year ad doe so again. Brailsford keeping every part of this moving gets better and better as he Syracuse Dromio and he starts very well. He’s not as nimble or bendy as Barham who seems born to this but produces a perfect comic voice and a running-gag language that’s hugely enjoyable and subtly different.
Hammond is superbly-voiced particularly as Aemilia and is one of those who finds all eyes on her when she requires it. Flack’s winning and snake-hipped as Courtesan which helps as she comes wrapped with a snake. Her slinky voice revs up the part for laughs.
Ariss can’t be heard as the unfortunate condemned merchant Aegeon, except in snatches: his beard might have something to do with it. Released as Balthazar or Dr Pinch the Welsh quack he’s a revelation as a parodically-voiced bon-viveur or fire-breathing zealot.
Jewell is a discovery. Though his CV states he looks twelve (like Owen Jones) his frantic campery (it calms down) makes a so-so part a wild routine. He can already project with clarity and comic edge, turn a word into a flounce, an exit into ritual. One director muttered ‘see him at …’ and he’s that good. Katy Matthews levels well as officer and jailer.
Moriarty naturally as either a merchant or particularly the Duke is sovereign. His voice carries like a command through the incipient twilight, he conveys the essential kindness of a ruler who can’t reverse a decree yet wriggles everything to happiness when give half a chance. His costume’s a fitting statement in scarlet and white. Assistant director Sarah Mann (a superb lady Macbeth) this time doesn’t act which I hope marks merely a break.
This is a light-footed, thump-fisted, limp-wristed and eye-poppingly uproarious production. It eschews some of the darker sexual undercurrents and the madness is restricted to a few swordfights and two trussed men. Long may this company tie up our attention of a summer evening.