Saturday, October 1, 2022

The Comedy of Errors



The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare.  Bell Shakespeare on tour at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse September 30 – October 8, 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 30

If you wonder how Shakespeare can still be relevant after more than 400 years, see The Comedy of Errors – particularly this Bell Shakespeare production – in which fake news takes on a terrifying ironic twist.  Every character only tells the truth and reaches reasonable conclusions.  The social fabric is almost torn apart – which we find funny to watch – and only by chance is life sewn back together harmoniously in a final powerful scene full of tears of relief and hope for humanity.

As Bell Shakespeare write on their blog: “Family members are repeatedly mistaken for one another, prompting claims of betrayal, declarations of love, accusations of lunacy, and allegations of theft. By dawn, a number of characters face prison (or worse) before a local nun puts two and two (and two) together, to reveal who is who and reunite the family members.”  But there’s an awful contrast, despite the upbeat mood of the 1970’s dance music and songs, with today’s World Wide Web ‘family’ where people deliberately do not tell the truth and encourage others to believe unreasonable conclusions.  The chances are against that kind of final scene in about 2050.  

Director Janine Watson explains in her note From the Director how her own experiences made her read Shakespeare’s play “with fresh eyes.  Whilst undoubtedly hugely funny, at its heart it is about people searching for each other and the threat to their identities and lives as they do so…. So, I give you our mystical discotheque 1970’s-inspired Island of Ephesus….A world where I believe no coincidence is impossible.  A world full of laughter, tears, and undying love.”

Taking us with her into this wonderful world is simply great theatre.  But as the photo gallery shows, it’s quite unlike the world of Shakespeare’s first production in 1594.  ]

The Comedy of Errors cast 2022
Bell Shakespeare, photo by Brett Boardman

The heart of the success of this performance is the sense of humour leaping off the stage for our enjoyment, built in to the intelligent self-awareness in the actors – who often speak directly and personally to us in the audience (and even one character explaining at one point to another that this is what they are supposed to do).  The amazingly choreographed tremendously athletic physicality of the action, in dialogue, song and dance – on the moveable staircases and all over the stage floor – makes the comedy exciting.  Bookended by the ‘straight’ beginning presaging the execution of the Syracusan who has unwittingly broken the law of Ephesus just by turning up to search for his long-lost twin sons and wife, and the seemingly impossible coincidence of finding them and receiving natural justice from the Duke in the end, the intervening comedy becomes a telling commentary on our belief that we understand what is true and what is not.

The first recorded performance of The Comedy of Errors was on 28 December 1594, at the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in the hall of Gray's Inn in Holborn as part of the Christmas festivities.

The Royal Shakespeare Company records [ ]  that “Scholars are divided about the play's date of composition. Some argue that it was written in the very early 1590s but others maintain that 1594 is the more likely date and that it was, perhaps, expressly written for this [first] performance before a legal audience at the end of that year”.

In other words, the question – and the questioning of – evidence, in law and by extension in life, is the central concern in this 428-year-old drama.  This is a ‘knowing’ comedy.  Every actor on stage clearly understood this in the almost stand-up way they played the comedy – and then showed in perhaps a Hannah Gadsby way the truth of our human need for warm understanding in that empathetic final scene.
[ Body of Work ]

I thank Janine Watson and her Creatives team for conceptualising this production of The Comedy of Errors.  I remain in awe of the magnificent Cast and Crew who made it all work so well on the night.