16 July 2010

The Comedy of Errors - Open Air Theatre Regent's Park, Monday 12th July 2010


Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, is condemned to death in Ephesus for violating the ban against travel between the two rival cities. As he is led to his execution, he tells the Ephesian Duke, Solinus, that he has come to Syracuse in search of his wife and one of his twin sons, who were separated from him 25 years ago in a shipwreck. The other twin, who grew up with Egeon, is also traveling the world in search of the missing half of their family. (The twins, we learn, are identical, and each has an identical twin slave named Dromio.) The Duke is so moved by this story that he grants Egeon a day to raise the thousand-mark ransom that would be necessary to save his life.
Meanwhile, unknown to Egeon, his son Antipholus of Syracuse (and Antipholus' slave Dromio) is also visiting Ephesus--where Antipholus' missing twin, known as Antipholus of Ephesus, is a prosperous citizen of the city. Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus' wife, mistakes Antipholus of Syracuse for her husband and drags him home for dinner, leaving Dromio of Syracuse to stand guard at the door and admit no one. Shortly thereafter, Antipholus of Ephesus (with his slave Dromio of Ephesus) returns home and is refused entry to his own house. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse has fallen in love with Luciana, Adriana's sister, who is appalled at the behavior of the man she thinks is her brother-in-law.
The confusion increases when a gold chain ordered by the Ephesian Antipholus is given to Antipholus of Syracuse. Antipholus of Ephesus refuses to pay for the chain (unsurprisingly, since he never received it) and is arrested for debt. His wife, seeing his strange behavior, decides he has gone mad and orders him bound and held in a cellar room. Meanwhile, Antipholus of Syracuse and his slave decide to flee the city, which they believe to be enchanted, as soon as possible--only to be menaced by Adriana and the debt officer. They seek refuge in a nearby abbey.

Adriana now begs the Duke to intervene and remove her "husband" from the abbey into her custody. Her real husband, meanwhile, has broken loose and now comes to the Duke and levels charges against his wife. The situation is finally resolved by the Abbess, Emilia, who brings out the set of twins and reveals herself to be Egeon's long-lost wife. Antipholus of Ephesus reconciles with Adriana; Egeon is pardoned by the Duke and reunited with his spouse; Antipholus of Syracuse resumes his romantic pursuit of Luciana, and all ends happily with the two Dromios embracing
Egeon - Christopher Ravensworth
Antipholus of Syracuse - Daniel Weyman
Antipholus of Ephesus - Daniel Llewellyn-Williams
Dromio of Syracuse - Joseph Kloska
Dromio of Ephesus - Josh Cohen
Adriana - Jo Herbert
Luciana - Sophie Roberts
Emilia - Veronica Roberts

Creative team:
Director - Philip Franks
Designer - Gideon Davy
Music - Matthew Scott
Lighting - Zerlina Hughes

Oh dear. These people really aren't gathering from the buttocks at all.  In fact, this lot only confirm my theory that, with certain exceptions, the Open Air Theatre Regent's Park is for people who wouldn't know decent Shakespeare if it sat on their face and wiggled (note to self: stop fantasizing about Fred Lancaster).  But then, Regent's Park Shakespeare never is that great - they do the occasional good musical but otherwise its basic, tourist-trap, chuck it on for the masses stuff. And this production is nothing more than that.  What's frustrating is that all the ingredients for a half-decent Comedy of Errors are there (more or less) but they've not been thought through or cooked properly. The basic premise, setting Ephesus somewhere on the Mediterranean coast of Africa in the late 1940s, isn't bad - in fact, with more care taken over the direction and more attention paid to the details, it would be quite a good one.  Mind you, it would help considerably if it were acted better.  Precious few, if any, of the cast have any Shakespeare experience under their belt - its a sad, sad Comedy of Errors when the only decent actors in the cast are playing Egeon and Emilia, both practically invisible parts.  When these people are on stage, it lights up.  When they're not, its like watching Carry On Casablanca - with about as much subtlety.  There's no nuance, no light and shade, no real feeling for the inherent ridiculousness of the situation - just shouting. 

This is a dreary play on the page - the comedy only comes alive with the direction, the interpretation of the roles and the sight gags.  In the main, these are all missing.  The ideas are there; you can see them in embryonic form, but they're "unfinished, sent before [their]time".  With a bit more care for the end product, this could really have been great. Its frustrating to see something never reach the potential you know, lurking somewhere under the flotsam, it has, particularly when occasionally there is a flash of something good.  Unfortunately, this only serves to highlight how bad the stuff around it is.  For instance, Egeon's long opening speech which sets up the story is, usually, a dreary ten minutes or so that you have to endure before you get to the start of the fun.  But here Christopher Ravenscroft invests his speech about the storm which separates the travellers with such intensity and feeling that you can almost hear the salty slap of uncaring waves as they drag his screaming wife and children out of his panicked reach.  Like a great beacon of hope, the speech shines the way for the whole production - but the director ignores it and the entire show heads for the rocks. It founders for a long time, with lots of screaming and rushing about on deck, before a wise and compassionate dolphin (in the form of Veronica Roberts' wonderfully rounded Emila) appears and tries to guide the production to safe harbour but its too late - the ship goes down with all hands. 

Things improve very slightly in the second act when the text takes second place to physical action, but its hard to care by this point about anything or anyone.  There's a lot of padding - unnecessary musical interludes (one "song", murdered by someone with no musical talent whatsoever and which  makes bats tumble out of the evening sky thankfully comes to an end after 4 lines, which is frankly 5 lines too many), people in gorilla suits, references to The Exorcist, Shaun of the Dead and so on. There's a woman in a wheelchair with a puppet pekingese but the comedy potential of this is completely thrown away.  There's a hideously buttock-clenching moment when one of the characters addresses the audience directly, asking if anyone is prepared to stump up surety money for Egeon, which is just asking for trouble.  The Courtesan is turned into a Nightclub singer  (yes, she can sing, but no, she can't act) who at one point strips off to stockings and suspenders that strain to contain her.  Neither of us crack more than the odd smile all evening - its very definitely a case of "Don't play it again, Sam". 

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