WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE WROTE A DECENT JOKE – WHINGERS IN SHOCK.
The Whingers make no secret of the fact that they usually find the the comedy in his plays and the wordplay in his comedies deeply unfunny. Yes, they sometimes laugh thanks to an actor’s delivery or a bit of business injected by a director aware that the text will not supply sufficient giggles for a modern audience. But at The Comedy of Errors they actually laughed at a line written by the Bard himself.
Just the once, you understand, but it’s a start. For the record it was in one of the Dromio’s “I could find out countries in her” speech referencing Belgium and the Netherlands. Shakespeare of course invented everything. Was he the first to discover the intrinsic comic value in Belgium too?
This was the Whingers’ first ever Comedy of Errors unless you count The Boys from Syracuse. It’s the one with the two pairs of identical twins, one set poor and purchased as slaves for the higher born pair. Think of it as Two Men, Two Guvnors if you will.
The sets of twins are separated shortly after birth by a shipwreck. The one from Syracuse (Lenny Henry) takes his servant (Lucian Msamati) to Ephesus seeking his long lost twin (Chris Jarman). Both pairs share the same names Antipholus and Dromio (Ephesus Dromio, Daniel Poyser), one pair having been renamed in honour of the other. And by this device Mr Shakespeare subtly enables endless comedic contrivances of mistaken identities to kick off. Suspension of disbelief higher even than Bunny Christie’s towering set is required. The design is also as complicated as the plot. The National Theatre‘s resources are playing at full tilt.
Updated to the present day (but we weren’t 100% sure where – Ephesus = London we assume) director Dominic Cooke throws in everything from pool tables to a real ambulance driven on stage (in one frenzied sequence) although the closest we spotted to the proverbial kitchen sink was a foot spa. A band comes on to cover the clever scene changes playing very agreeable covers of modern classics from Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” to Teddy Randazzo and Bobby Weinstein’s sublime “Goin’ Out Of My Head”*. Phil hopes the National will be releasing a CD.
Mr Henry’s performance is nicely modulated making the few times he’s less reigned in very amusing though the Caribbean accent he affects surely undermines the misunderstandings. Both Dromios play the fun engagingly and endearingly. But it is Claudie Blakley (daughter of one of 60s popsters The Tremeloes) as Adriana (wife to Antipholus of Ephesus**) and Michelle Terry as Luciana, her sister who provide a lot of the fun, though both Whingers looked on in horror as the former leapt on one of the pool tables in towering Essex girl-style heels not because we feared for her safety, but out of concern for the baize.
So again most of the chuckles came from the performances and business rather than the “comedy” itself which we suppose is to be expected. The lengthy wrapping up of the plot where the confusions are explained felt like an Agatha Christie denouement but was relieved by a few decent laughs.
It’s also Shakespeare’s shortest play apparently (we stand to be corrected on this) and runs a mere 2 hours 15 minutes including the interval which helped shoehorn the Whingers into fairly agreeable states of mind.
** If you don’t know the play the free cast list doesn’t help listing Adriana as wife to Antipholus of Syracuse despite being wife to Antipholus of Ephesus which is what the National has put in the synopsis, is this a playful nod to the on stage confusions?