The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry describes the Propeller version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors as ‘Shakespeare rediscovered’, and they’re not far wrong. Sombreros, naked priests and rousing chorus’ of 80s pop brought Shakespeare tumbling into the 21st century, and the effect was fabulous.
The basic plot is that identical twin brothers, both named Antipholus, and their parents Egeon and Emilia, are separated by a shipwreck, with one twin and the father ending up in Syracuse, whilst the second twin and mother finding themselves in Ephesus, and conveniently enough, these are two cities that despise one another. Also separated in the shipwreck are the servants of both twins, who are twins themselves, both named Dromio…well, it would be odd if Shakespeare made it easy. Egeon gets caught in Ephesus and is threatened with death, but upon hearing that he is searching for the second twin and his wife, the Duke relents and says that if someone can pay Egeon’s bond by the day’s end, he will spare him.
What follows is one of the brightest and funniest adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve ever witnessed: the continual slapstick over Dromio’s beatings, the references to a ‘spherical’ kitchen wench who is trying to wed the wrong Dromio, the confusion over which Antipholus is which and the general chaos that ensures really does bring Shakespeare to a new level of understanding, and while it’s never easy to understand all the language, Propeller’s quirky performance certainly guides you along wonderfully.
As it would have been in the Elizabethan theatre, all the roles were played by male actors, which certainly added authenticity to the production, as well as boosting the comedy levels even higher than before. The use of Luciana as a ninja-warrior was probably the highlight of the female interpretations, as well as having Adriana as a balding man in a garish coat, and a courtesan in a slightly terrifying rabbit costume. This also highlights the absurdity of the relationships within the play: Adriana, as Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, brilliantly guides the audience along as a marker of the confusion: shutting her rightful husband out to ‘dine’ with his twin and Antipholus of Syracuse’s propositions of love to Adriana’s sister, Luciana, just show the extremity of the confusion, as well as bringing events to such a height that it’s difficult not to get swept along in the madness. Antipholus of Ephesus’ rantings in the second half over how he has been falsely accused of being elsewhere is performed with such a manic pace that the audience is left holding their breath alongside him, until he finally collapses from the absolute absurdity of his situation.
The show was brought up to date in several ways, including a separate performance by the cast during the interval of 80s classics to raise money for charity: a feature later incorporated into the second act. The set and costumes were fantastically bright, adding to the hilarity of the situation, as well as the use of music to underline the comedy. The best bit of modern relevance, though, was when the falsely-accused Antopholus and Dromio of Ephesus are put in wheely bins (an obvious substitute for a mental asylum I’m sure), which provokes a quip about the infamous YouTube Cat Bin Lady.
The only (very minor) criticism is Egeon’s speeches: yawn. They were the bit that dragged the play back towards Earth though, and created a gravity for the play to centre around, so as to create a beginning and an ending to the chaos. So while it was a bit tedious to sit through his soliloquies, Egeon is certainly a vital plot-device, in bookending the play and stopping it from losing its bearings.
Overall, however, Comedy of Errors was absolutely brilliant: the actors clearly had a passion for both Shakespeare and in interesting modern audiences in the bard, which led to a brilliant production which can appeal to those who love, and those who tend to steer clear of, Shakespeare’s works. Propeller did a wonderful job, and amongst the madness showed a theatrical sanity which showed the talent within their abilities.