I’d heard two rather sniffy comments about this production of Comedy of Errors before seeing it – one was that as it starred Lenny Henry it was appealing only to people who liked him off the telly; and the other was that the first scene is immensely tedious in its wordy scene-setting. Well I’m happy to report that I think both comments are a load of old codswallop.
Let’s start with that second comment. Yes, it’s an early play and yes, Egeon’s opening speech is long and somewhat tortuous and maybe a more mature Shakespeare would have done it differently. But he didn’t so we have to put up with it. Moreover, if you don’t follow all the details of Egeon’s speech you haven’t got a clue as to the why and the wherefore of the following two hours, so there’s no option to cut it. Enter a fantastic set, designed by Bunny Christie. When the play starts it depicts tall tenements in a shady part of town, maybe based on a London/Essex hybrid, where the brutal treatment of Egeon can take place without raising an eyebrow. But when Egeon starts to tell his story, the set splits in two and becomes the tall ship on the raging sea, and mime characters act out Egeon’s tale as it unfolds. I think this is the fourth production of Comedy of Errors I have seen and this story telling in the opening scene has never been so lucidly achieved.
And back to the first comment, if TV stars like Lenny Henry attract a new audience to Shakespeare on stage, isn’t that a good thing? I don’t get the pomposity that criticises him for it. Now of course, if he couldn’t act, and he hammed it up something dreadful, and it was an embarrassment, then they might have a point. But he doesn’t. He acts it completely with conviction and within a few lines you forget that you’re not watching a “legitimate” actor. And let’s not forget – Comedy of Errors is hardly Hamlet.
I would say that his Antipholus of Syracuse is a little more violent than others I have seen. Normally A. of S. is depicted as rather a sophisticated or isolated type – sometimes foppish even. This Antipholus isn’t pretending to give his Dromio a biff round the ears, he attacks him head on. No wonder Dromio of Syracuse gets a bit alarmed by him. But then this Comedy of Errors is set in a rather seedy urban underworld; the Duke, the Officer and the Merchants are definitely Not To Be Trusted. It’s dog eat dog out there.
But as a comedy duo, they are terrific. Mr Henry does a marvellous line in bewildered looks as everyone in Ephesus appears to know who he is, from edging anxiously around the snooker table while Adriana is insisting on his return home, to emerging sheepishly onto the bedroom balcony clad only in a towel, after they have shared conjugals. He is matched – possibly bettered – by the splendid Lucian Msamati who was brilliant when we last saw him in Clybourne Park, as Dromio of Syracuse, whose exasperations are genuinely funny and who makes that potentially intractable verse come alive.
You have to make the two Antipholi come across as very different characters, so Chris Jarman’s equally convincing Antipholus of Ephesus is a wide boy who expects everything to go his way and his embarrassment at not being let into his house is delightful. The final scene, when the brothers are reunited and go into the house together, is heartwarmingly funny. Messrs Henry and Jarman grin boyishly like Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears and it’s an irresistably endearing moment. Dromio of Ephesus, Daniel Poyser, is suitably a little more worldly wise than his Syracusian counterpart, but then again he has been coping with Luce all these years.
Other excellent supporting performances come from Amit Shah as Angelo the goldsmith, who turns from being a meek and mild tradesman to a spitting cauldron of fury, Rene Zagger as the Second Merchant, portrayed with subtle mafia overtones, Grace Thurgood’s alluring Courtesan who has many a knowing expression as she stirs the waters even further with demands over her ring, and Joseph Mydell’s dignified Egeon.
But I leave the best till last. Two gems of performances from Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as her sister Luciana. Pacing, tormented, on her glamorous balcony at the Phoenix, immaculately realised in this constantly evolving set, the equally glamorous Ms Blakley brings genuine anxiety and worry to the role of Adriana. Straight out of The Only Way Is Ephesus, and clearly someone who knows what she wants and is used to getting it, she brings out all the humour of an Estuary woman thwarted; whilst Ms Terry’s Luciana, in what must be one of the least politically correct roles in regular performance, affirms that a man is master of his liberty in a hilarious faltering, thinking it out one-syllable-at-a-time, manner. By the time Adriana has leapt onto the snooker table – by the way, none of the actors can play snooker for toffee – they are so in their stride and commanding the stage that there is no doubt that this is their show. And, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, Claudie Blakley has a dress to die for. In the same way that Messrs Henry and Msamati make a brilliant comedy duo, these two are a perfect match throughout and their scenes are pure joy.
But probably the best aspect of this production is that the story-telling element is so clear. From Egeon’s opening speech, to the comings-and-goings with chains and rings and purses and what have you, all the elements that drive the story along are crystal clear. Sometimes some of the meaning can get lost in the Shakespearean verse but this production avoids that pitfall perfectly. Mrs C confessed that this was the first time she realised that the Abbess was Egeon’s wife, and she’s seen it three times before. Added to all this, there’s a real ambulance, Turkish buskers playing ironic pop tunes, and an amazingly versatile set, all contributing to a really enjoyable and lovingly done production. Highly recommended.