Edinburgh Fringe 2014
A pulsating Comedy of Errors that has the audience begging for more from this extremely accomplished troupe of players.
The Comedy of Errors is generally held to be Shakespeare’s shortest play. And it’s probably one of his more complex given that it involves two sets of identical twins (sons of a merchant, condemned to die for violating a travel ban between two rival cities and their respective servants), crossed wives, confused merchants, angry Dukes and a lot of cleverly crafted mistaken identity. Explaining all this to even moderately intelligent adults can be a challenge, so aiming your show firmly at the very young and easily bored (as Take Thou That Theatre with Bristol Old Vic Theatre School are here) takes some courage. But this talented troupe of seven actors pulled it off with aplomb with a show that’s part pure Shakespeare (got to keep those parental aficionados onside) and part silent movie, melodrama and slapstick.
With just those seven cast members covering around twenty parts, accents, posture and costumes had to be flipped with bewildering speed. True, there was the occasional slip of the mask as the wrong accent came out or an incorrect posture was adopted but these were few and far between and, most importantly, floated passed without the audience noticing. The decision to have each “twin” played by the same character was interesting and really worked. Both Dromio and Antipholis managed to remember which of the twins they were supposed to be playing at each moment in this helter-skelter of a plot which culminated in a cleverly crafted denouement between the Dromio “twins”, with one rather over-worked actor holding an increasingly frantic conversation with himself.
The set is simple and facilitates the many quick changes of character and costume that keep this splendid show on the boil. A plain curtain hangs from a simple proscenium arch decorated with vaudeville style bill posters. Actors burst forth through this curtain and dodge around the edges of the arch with split second timing and use the other simple stage settings (a couple of barrels and a large wooden chest) to considerable effect. Hats, scarves and other easily changed costumes are used to differentiate characters and visual gags tumble forth a-plenty, with mime, slapstick, comedy chases, pratfalls and that wonderful comic invention, the swinging plank.
This is s show that has a lot to recommend it. Kids of all ages watched spellbound by the quick-fire physicality, augmented by the tight, commedia dell’arte style characterisation employed throughout. There was enough “real” Shakespeare in the soliloquies and conversations from the original text to keep any purist in the audience happy and just the right amount of narration and witty asides to keep the plot rolling along and everyone on the same page.
And that good, visual theatre transcends all languages was brought home to me by the infant-in-arms who refused the bottle of milk its mother was trying to ram into his mouth – he simply wanted to join in the show. Twelve months old, not a word of English, but totally enchanted by the comedy before his eyes. If only my introduction to Shakespeare had been so compelling – I wouldn’t have had to wait until my forties before realising what a genius he was.