‘The Comedy of Errors’ was risible.
The past two years have been challenging for many people, not least those in the arts industry. Constant closures and restrictions have made live theatre a rare commodity. While it can be very easy to focus on the negatives of the past 24 months, the Australian Shakespeare Comedy (ASC) have decided to take the opposite approach and remind audiences of the joy and laughter that theatre brings. Kicking off their latest season of ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ than by bringing to life one of the Bard’s earliest comedies, ‘The Comedy of Errors’.
ASC’s ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ has been an institution of Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens for the past 35 years. Families and friends come together each season to enjoy theatre in the open, packing their blankets, bottles of rosé, and picnic baskets. As the sky turns from dusk to a starry night, audiences wait in hushed anticipation for what ASC has planned for them this time round. In the case of ‘The Comedy of Errors’, the quiet should be embraced as laughter will soon take its place.
There is some dispute as to when Shakespeare penned ‘The Comedy of Errors’, though it is believed to be one of his earliest dramatic compositions. Noted as one of his shortest plays, the comedy derives heavily from its physical slapstick and wordplay. The story focuses upon two sets of long-lost identical twins who happen to be in the Greek town of Ephesus on the same day. Multiple instances of mistaken identity occur throughout, resulting in numerous hilariously ludicrous outcomes sure to conjure many laughs.
As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, ‘The Comedy of Errors’ has been adapted numerous times. While the play is best known in its original, Shakespearean form, it has also been the basis for productions of different formats. Richard Rodgers’ 1938 Broadway musical ‘The Boys from Syracuse’ takes direct inspiration from the Bard’s work. Trevor Nunn’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ premiered on the West End in 1977 and went on to win Best Musical at that year’s Laurence Olivier Awards. The play has also inspired several silver screen adaptations including the modernised, gender-swapped 1988 comedy film, ‘Big Business’, and the episode ‘Zanzibar’ from the BBC’s anthology series, ‘Inside No. 9’. Its most recent production at The Globe Theatre in London (in its original format) was one of the headline productions of its 2019 summer season. As such, it’s easy to see that ‘The Comedy of Errors’ is a Shakespearean favourite among theatre companies thanks to its short length and physical humour.
In the case of the ASC’s latest production, it could be argued that their appreciation for the work stems from the story itself. As is a custom with stories about mistaken identity, the theme of doubling is conveyed through the performance – both by the actors and the set itself. Staged just within the F-Gate entrance of the Royal Botanic Gardens, the set was striking in its pronounced monochrome aesthetic. Set designer Greg Carroll expertly conveys the message of doubling through the scaffold’s chaotic black and white pattern. This yin and yang design is complimented well with choreographed lighting effects. Under the guidance of Production Manager Peter Amesbury and Stage Manager Emily Carter, the interplay between the set and lighting dramatically accentuates the comical tone, as well as the theme of doubling.
Similar praise should be given to the costuming of ‘The Comedy of Errors’. Costume Designer Karla Erenbots draws inspiration from the production’s slapstick nature to ensure each character is dressed equal parts authentic to the time and for physicality. Erenbots’ use of Commedia dell’Arte masks is inspired. This easily exaggerates the features of the misidentified sets of twins, and gifts the audience with greater opportunities for humour.
In addition to the masks, each character’s costume is tailored well to correlate with their personality. The Costuming and Props team – Designer Erenbots, Coordinator Kaspa Elston, and Assistant Sasha Lippman – skilfully dress their cast in materials that heighten the ridiculousness of the show’s premise. From microfibre wash mitts to castanets, matador jackets to Venetian masks, and even mop slippers, each piece of clothing perfectly establishes the show’s ethos of physical frivolity.
The belly laughs audience members experience throughout the show can be attributed to the talented direction and choreography of Glenn Elston and Sue-Ellen Shook, respectively. Elston, being the Artistic Director of ASC, understands the importance of atmosphere and blocking within Shakespeare’s work. This is no exception in ‘The Comedy of Errors’. Every facet of the stage is utilised to great comedic effect, including some instances of off-stage sound. His collaboration with Shook propels the production to a higher level. As Shakespeare’s most physical comedy, ‘The Comedy of Errors’ is no stranger to slapstick. However, in the case of ASC’s production, the ante is upped. Audiences will undoubtedly have fun watching the countless routines involving ropes, pool noodles, and gymnastic mats. Arguably, the biggest highlight involves a set of rollerblades which will not be spoiled in this review.
The players of ASC’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ make use of their world with grand affection for the source material. Each member of the cast demonstrates a passion for their craft, allowing for a natural flow of charisma between them all. The partnership of Hugh Sexton and Syd Brisbane, performing the Syracusan halves of their respective twins, Antipholus and Dromio, is a particular standout thanks to their comedic timing and chemistry. Similar can be said of Maverick Newman’s Emelia, who, though only featuring late in the production’s second act, is sure to leave audience members in stitches. Madeleine Somers is another highlight as the amusingly conflicted Luciana. Her farcical expressions and impeccable understanding of comedic timing complement the fun-filled nature of Shakespeare’s play.
While theatre may have seen its fair share of dark times over the past two years, ASC’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ is a breath of refreshing (Botanical Garden) air. ASC has kicked off this year’s ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ season with not only a bang, but a whole orchestra of slapstick sound effects. If you like your Shakespeare with a serve of dell’Arte humour, this is the perfect production for you. You’d be making an error to miss this comedy.
‘The Comedy of Errors’ performs as part of the Australian Shakespeare Company’s ‘Shakespeare Under the Stars’ season until Saturday, 19 February 2022 at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the ASC’s website.
Photos provided by Australian Shakespeare Company.