(Antic Disposition, Grays Inn Hall, until 1 September 2016)
A year on from Henry V, Antic Disposition turn their sights on another of Shakespeare’s plays, this time the considerably less familiar Comedy of Errors. As you all know, I do like my Shakespeare, but I’d neither read nor seen this play before and had little idea of what to expect. However, I always know that I’m in for a good show where this company are concerned and they outdid themselves here, turning this zany comedy of mistaken identities into a riotous farce, peppered with sultry musical numbers and with a setting best described as a blend between Some Like It Hot and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
The cities of Syracuse and Ephesus are at war and, if a citizen of one city should be found in the other, he faces arrest and death. Daring this prohibition is Egeon of Syracuse, who has come to Ephesus searching for his lost son. In a shipwreck, many years ago, Egeon lost his wife Emilia, along with one of their twin sons and one of the twin boys they were bringing up along with them to act as their servants. Now Egeon’s son Antipholus of Syracuse is a young man and he, along with his servant Dromio of Syracuse, has set off on a quest to find their missing brothers, leaving Egeon behind. This lamentable story doesn’t impress Solinus, the gang-boss ruler of Ephesus, whose men capture Egeon shortly after his arrival, but Solinus does grant Egeon a day to raise the large sum necessary for bail. If he can’t, he will be executed as the law demands.
Little does Egeon realise how close he is to both his sons. Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio have just arrived in Ephesus, overwhelmed by its grandeur and hoping to do a bit of sight-seeing before they return home. However, strange things start to happen to them. The shopkeepers of Ephesus greet them with familiarity and offer them money; the goldsmith Angelo even gives Antipholus a superb chain. The two Syracusans are baffled by this warm welcome, but things get even stranger when Dromio – or perhaps someone who looks exactly like him – hurries up to order Antipholus to come home for dinner with his wife Adriana. Antipholus of Syracuse, who has no wife, but thinks this is all perhaps part of some joke, warily goes along with it.
Elsewhere in the city, Antipholus of Ephesus and his servant Dromio of Ephesus are going about their daily tasks. Antipholus is an important man and has built up a network of clients and friends throughout the city. But today everything is rather odd. When he sends his servant off on errands, Dromio keeps coming back saying strange things, as if carrying on completely different conversations, and when Antipholus bumps into Angelo, the goldsmith starts badgering him for payment for a chain that Antipholus has never even seen. To add insult to injury, when he goes home to meet his wife for lunch, he finds the door barred against him. Locked out of his own house! It’s too much to bear. So Antipholus decides to teach his faithless wife a lesson… but, try as he might, things just get stranger and stranger.
The aesthetic of the production was an absolute joy. Ephesus has been transformed into the Ephesus Bay Hotel and Antipholus of Ephesus is its urbane, unctuous manager. As the audience take their seats around the perimeter of Gray’s Inn Hall (where The Comedy of Errors was first performed, back in 1594), Antipholus glides around to charm his guests, welcome new arrivals and wish us a pleasant stay. Costumes have a 1920s flavour: the two Antipholuses wear cream slacks and navy blazers; the Dromios are dressed as bellhops; Adriana and her sister Luciana have bobs and flapper dressers. Solinus is a shifty mafioso, while Doctor Pinch becomes a flamboyant vintage conjurer, with a grand turban and floating robes. Antipholus of Ephesus’s mistress, the Courtesan, becomes a platinum-blonde cabaret singer (with more than a nod to Some Like It Hot).
The programme notes the difficulty of casting two pairs of actors who had to be both good musicians (see below) and convincing as twins, and Antic Disposition have chosen very well, making the resemblance even more uncanny by using the same costumes for each pair of twins. Alex Hooper gave an effortlessly suave performance as Antipholus of Ephesus, his polish fading away to reveal mounting fury as his daily life becomes disrupted at every turn by his unsuspecting (and unsuspected) twin. William de Coverly makes that twin, Antipholus of Syracuse, more exuberant and affable than his priggish brother, often sharing his enthusiasm directly with the audience as the wonders of Ephesus multiply.
The two Dromios are both slightly downtrodden: Keith Higinbotham, as Dromio of Ephesus, gives a brilliant comic performance of miserable servitude, his relationship with his hotel-manager master occasionally recalling Basil Fawlty and Manuel in Fawlty Towers. Dromio of Syracuse (Andrew Venning) has a slightly more egalitarian relationship with his Antipholus, and his comedy focuses on the bewildering challenges of being a foreigner in a place that seems to know you – his funniest scene was his overawed description of the vast kitchen wench who has made advances to him. To make matters worse, the two Dromios did look incredibly similar in their bellhop uniforms, so that I had to really concentrate whenever one of them appeared, to tell who it was.
The rest of the cast, as always with Antic Disposition, offer strong support. My favourite among them was Philip Mansfield, who turned in a superb dual performance as the slimy, Corleone-esque Solinus and the absurd Doctor Pinch. Louise Templeton, whom I saw in Henry V, turned in a brief but commanding role as the Abbess; Paul Sloss gave Angelo a simpering campness; and Ellie Ann Lowe and Giovanna Ryan bounced off one another very well as the two sisters baffled by Antipholus’ bizarre behaviour. I felt that Paul Croft was a tiny bit static as Egeon, but I suppose he wasn’t helped by having the extensive soliloquy which is necessary to set the scene of the play and fill us in on the complicated backstory.
The music throughout the production is played by the actors themselves, who casually form up with banjo, saxophone, ukulele, trumpet, double-bass and drums, before stashing the instruments and sauntering out for the next scene. The set is minimal – just a wrought-iron arch emblazoned with the illuminated word ‘Hotel’ – but the appeal of the show is purely in the action. And such action! There’s all manner of slapstick and running around, not to mention the dodgy magic tricks of Doctor Pinch and the final chaotic chase in and out of doors around the hall, as the entire cast chases or is chased, yelling every time they stumble over a random pair of Antipholuses or Dromios. It’s incredibly silly but very, very funny, and they bring out the daftness of the farce with as much aplomb as they honed the poignancy of Henry V. The only problem was that sometimes there was so much shouting that the resonant echoes of the venue made it hard to hear the words: this was particularly noticeable in Adriana’s more strident moments. However, it’s a small quibble.
It’s another great show from Antic Disposition and, as ever, I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever they choose to do next. They are one of the very few companies producing work of such a consistently high standard, and whether their shows leave you enthralled, damp-eyed or simply weak from giggling too much, it’s always a special experience.