This brilliantly funny production of Shakespeare’s comedy of separation anxiety and mistaken identity – set in modern times and part of the RSC’s ‘Shipwreck Trilogy’ – is a bright splash of colour flung across the Roundhouse stage with assuredness and a keen eye by director Amir Nizar Zuabi.
Antipholus and his faithful but dim companion Dromio, both of Syracuse, have defied a penalty of death to smuggle themselves into the coastal town of Ephesus in search of the twin brothers who share their names and were lost in a shipwreck years before. But they are not prepared for the confusion and marital bed-hopping that follows when they encounter the family, friends and business associates of their identical siblings. Meanwhile, Egeon, father of the Antipholus twins, faces execution for entering the city without permission – unless money can be raised to pay for his freedom.
Squeezing Shakespeare into contemporary dress can result in something ill-fitting and unconvincing, jarringly anachronistic rather than illuminating. But Zuabi’s re-imagining of Ephesus as a repressive rogue state is inspired. Don’t be surprised if you choke on your chuckles at some points. A thuggish, machine-gun-toting police force executes people on the whim of Sandy Grierson’s Gaddafi-esque Duke Solinus, who we meet having Egeon tortured while wearing a purple dressing gown and flashy shades. Slapstick takes place beneath swinging bodies. Life, death and laughter come together in a lunatic yet feverishly familiar landscape, reflecting the serious stakes that underpin this freewheeling farce.
Zuabi is just as good at matching the rib-tickling extended metaphors of Shakespeare’s verse with some excellent sight gags that become funnier the longer they last. Virtuosic passages like a sexually intimidated Syracusan Dromio’s drawn-out comparison of lascivious maid Nell’s ample proportions to the shape of the Earth – featuring a wonderfully smutty innuendo about the Netherlands – are of a tone with sequences that are both wryly observed and laugh-out-loud funny, such as the one in which a seemingly endless stream of illegal immigrants emerge from the same small crate.
This constant flow of people speaks to another aspect of the play that the production successfully and wittily foregrounds: the importance of commerce. In this commoditised place, all that glitters is all that matters. From the bags and coats hastily hawked by the immigrants to Amie Burns Walker’s business-minded Courtesan, everything is for sale. A Farrah Fawcett-like Adriana, wife of the Ephesian Antipholus, descends from the ceiling like a bored ornamental bird in a gilded cage; and the plot largely revolves around a desperate merchant chasing one Antipholus for payment for a gold chain he has given to the other unwittingly.
The stream of commerce that drags the characters along with it and leaves them washed up is beautifully evoked by Jon Bausor’s striking, stylised wooden wave of a set, which dips into a water tank on one side and breaks into splinters against brightly-coloured barrels and crates of coffee on the opposite wall. As pulleys zip overhead and props descend from the ceiling, there is a sense of constant, surging motion. The stage ebbs and flows with the carnivalesque jumble of life that exists on the borders of Solinus’s regime, from dock workers and instrument-playing monks to irate wives and confused lovers.
The actors have uniformly great comic timing, particularly Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes as the two Dromios. With their green beanies and Tintin quiffs, they bring a loveable, loose-limbed cartoonish quality to their pratfalls and misadventures. Meanwhile, Jonathan McGuinness and Stephen Hagan, although wearing identical shiny suits, make for quite different Antipholuses. Where McGuinness is wiry and cautious, Hagan is an arrogant celebrity-wannabe – in reality about as cool as a try-hard Dad – swaggering around with a gaggle of paid-up, bling-tastic cronies. It isn’t until he loses everything (and suffers a few electric shocks on the way) that his attitude softens.
Kirsty Bushell and Emily Taaffe as Adriana and her sister Luciana do their best, and raise their fair share of laughs, but have less to work with in a play that has a tendency to keep its women at arm’s length. Luciana is blandly sweet while Bushell’s character spends most of her time shrieking at everyone. In general, the volume goes up as the production nears its end and loses some of its focus and tightness. There is also a problem with clarity in the exposition-heavy opening scene. But these are minor grumbles about a clever, extremely funny and engaging production, which keeps its errors in the plot, not on the stage.