Shakespeare’s shortest play certainly goes quickly in Dominic Cooke’s entertainingly anarchic production, his debut at the National. This farcical early tale of the mayhem caused by two pairs of identical twins getting mixed up is played as a knockabout comedy with loads of funny business and physical gags. Sometimes it strives too hard to get laughs, using the full force of the Olivier’s technical facilities with the revolve doing overtime, but there’s certainly never a dull moment in this bewildering succession of misadventures.
As artistic director of the Royal Court, Cooke is best known for his staging of new drama but before that he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where his productions included Pericles and The Winter’s Tale. And here he shows how The Comedy of Errors is a lighter precursor of those late Shakespearean romances of family separation and reunion, with a surprisingly touching resolution to all the preceding slapstick.
However, Cooke also makes a less convincing case for the play to be seen as a ‘city comedy’, full of teeming metropolitan madness and urban paranoia. It’s true that this Plautus-inspired story (the only Shakespearean work to conform to the three classical unities) is set in the ancient Roman city of Ephesus, but arguably it might as well be Illyria. Rather than some sultry Mediterranean location, this staging seems to be a modern-day, multicultural, bustling London, with sleazy snooker clubs and imposing financial institutions cheek by jowl, though the red light area with its shop-window whores seems more like Amsterdam. Bunny Christie’s elaborate design, slickly revolving from dingy back streets to vulgar apartment blocks and smart townhouses, is impressive in its detail but is in danger of overpowering the basic human comedy.
The back-story explained through a long monologue in the opening scene is here enacted by an atmospheric re-creation of a storm shipwreck with the mirror-image buildings of the city suddenly split, symbolizing the family division, but much of the poetic melancholy of the language is lost. To suggest the sense of the protagonists being bewitched in this foreign place where inexplicable things happen, occasionally Paule Constable bathes the stage in an effectively eerie light. And in the swift scene changes, a band of four cheesy musicians sings Western pop songs on the theme of ‘craziness’ in Romanian – you won’t have heard Gnarls Barkley like this before.
Following on from his surprisingly successful Shakespearean debut as the tragic Othello in 2009/10, Lenny Henry does not disappoint in his more obvious casting as the boisterously clownish Antipholus of Syracuse, using his expressive body language to good effect, as he alternates between baffled delight, violent temper tantrums and superstitious fear. He has a great double act with Lucian Msamati as his much put-upon faithful servant Dromio, an innocent at large whose best efforts just get him into trouble, though their Ephesus counterparts Chris Jarman and Daniel Poyser are not as funny. Claudie Blakley’s Adriana and Michelle Terry as her sister Luciana are feisty Essex girls who give as good as they get. And Joseph Mydell’s Egeon and Pamela Nomvete’s Abbess bring a touch of dignified gravitas to the chaotic proceedings.
Hilariously, the programme contains a slip correcting a misprint in the programme in which Adriana is described as ‘Wife to Antipholus of Syracuse’ (rather than Ephesus) – surely either an inspired piece of marketing, or a comic error totally in the spirit of the play.