When Shakespeare’s shortest surviving play, The Comedy of Errors, was produced and staged in 1594 at Gray’s Inn in London for an audience of lawyers to conclude a night of revels, the records of Gray’s Inn reported thus: Night was begun and continued to the end, in nothing but confusion and errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called “The Night of Errors”. The play was then performed in court in 1604 and, in the centuries that followed it has been produced in unaltered and adapted forms ever since. Shakespeare’s original source for the plot was from a Latin play by the Roman playwright Plautus and Shakespeare made his version ever more farcical by introducing a second pair of twins into the plot and gave it a happy ending. Historically it is his only play, aside from The Tempest to use the convention of having all of the action happen in the course of one day.
The traditional story is set in Ephesus, a Greek town with a reputation for witchcraft and mis-rule. In the modern day it is in Turkey. Merchants from neighbouring Syracuse are not allowed to conduct business in Ephesus without paying a fine of a thousand marks and vice versa. Should they trade ‘illegally’ and not be able to pay it the law said that they will be put to death. Solonious, Duke of Ephesus upholds this draconian law. However he becomes more flexible when he hears Aegeon – a merchant of Syracuse – relate his sad story of how he came to Ephesus.
For the play to work, firstly the audiences must be moved by Aegeon’s story and believe that his life is at stake. If these circumstances are unconvincing then the story will lose the purpose of the following comic acts. Secondly the whole play relies heavily on all of the actors’ comedic abilities. So, after that little bit of history, is this production by the all male Propeller company of The Comedy of Errors funny?
You bet! It is supremely funny!! Propeller take Shakespeare’s play and bring hissing and spitting colourfully to life through their madcap interpretation. The play is well known for its farcical nature, clever word play and slapstick humour and this production has already started as you find your seat. The live background music playing is Latin style and the actors banter with the audience. When they reach the stage and the play starts we are transported to a cheap and cheerful Latin style Costa del Ephesus, holiday resort complete with, gaudy lights, graffiti and a barmy mariachi band kitted out in football shirts and sombrero hats.
Through an impassioned speech by Aegeon ( Chris Myles) the audience learns that two sets of twins (two goodly sons, the one so like the other that could not distinguished but by name) are separated on a voyage after a violent storm at sea. All survive but are split up and each is not aware of the other’s existence. Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant Dromio find themselves washed ashore in Ephesus, the home of their twin brothers and the inevitable farce of misunderstandings and mistaken identities grows apace.
Shakespeare’s language and complex plotting can sometimes be difficult for a 21st century audience to grasp if one is unfamiliar with the story but Propeller make it an enormously fun journey and the characters are very recognisable even if some of the men are parodies of women and the actions have connected sound effects and are often cartoon like. The verse and prose is perfect and handed with panache by all the cast of eight male actors. There is much hilarious campery for the actors playing the female roles and the work that must have gone into developing and refining even minor characters is incredible and the whole play is bench mark of clear story-telling plus a million laughs. Scarily this reviewer started to actually believe the deceptively aggressive Luciana (Arthur Wilson) was actually female!
The play had a multitude of highlights and some real laugh out loud moments that will stay with you long after the play has finished – actors slid into wheelie bins, a cheesy Spanish policeman serenades a female member of the audience, Pinch, a lunatic Baptist conjurer played with reckless abandon by Darrell Brockis rocks the stage and the courtesan with rabbit ears (Mathew Pearson) is hilarious with his/her deadpan delivery.
This production of The Comedy of Errors has enough energy to light half of the city of Nottingham and the sets of twins Antipholus of Ephesus (Joseph Chance) and Dromio of Ephesus (Mathew McPherson) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Dan Wheeler) and Dromio of Syracuse (Will Featherstone) are the electricity that powers the show. They are none stop throughout and although they don’t really look exactly like each other the power of the theatre demands you suspend belief. A superb show and I for one wouldn’t hesitate to see another performance by the unique talents of Propeller. Highly recommended.
Review by Phil Lowe
Propellor: Comedy of Errors and A Midsummer Night’s Dream is at the Theatre Royal until Saturday 22 February 2014 for more information click here