The Comedy of Errors – Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

MANCHESTER Mouth community reporter Sadia Habib reviews Roxana Silbert’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’ – Royal Exchange Theatre.

The glass box suspended in the air contains the Duke of Ephesus – regal and poised on his throne – waiting for the audience to be seated.  Once the theatre is full, the glass box slowly descends, and the Duke steps on to the stage.  A sober scene is set: great enmity between the cities of Ephesus and Syracuse, and Egeon (a merchant from Syracuse) is condemned to death.  Egeon recounts an old tale of the separation and disunity in his family, whilst pleading for his life. This very long opening speech establishes the plight of “hapless Egeon”.

Be not alarmed that this will be an intensely weighty adaptation causing you to sigh, and then sigh some more.  Instead, you will laugh and laugh some more.  For what proceeds from here onwards is markedly different in tone from the grave opening.  The serious beginning of the play is soon counter-balanced with great moments of mirth, while mistaken identities result in banter and humour and the comedy (of errors) commences.  There is tugging, pulling, pushing, slapping, hugging, beating, rope whipping, nose-yanking, ear-grabbing and more!

Very modern props of bright red plastic sunglasses and the inhaler add contemporary comedy to this Elizabethan play – thrice the inhaler is used to amuse the audience. Hats off to Sydney Florence, associate costume designer, as the men and the women of this adaptation are dressed magnificently: embroidered golds and blues, jewels and sequins, stylish hair and even more stylish shoes – based on the couture designs of Viviane Westwood and Alexander McQueen no less.

The stars of the show are the servant Dromios (Michael Jibson and Owain Arthur) – exuberant and exasperated, but loyal and lively.  Their encounters with their masters reflecting their respective relationships are moments of perfect comic timing.  The witty banter is relentless and makes us roar with laughter.  The antics of the servants and the antics of the masters (Sam Collings and Jack Farthing) appeal to our sympathies, whilst making us belly-laugh at the same time.  Orla Fitzgerald’s performance as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, is also impressive: her wrath and her woe aptly demonstrated in her dramatics.

The Shakespearean wordplay we anticipate does not disappoint. “She is spherical, like a globe.  I could find out countries in her” the outraged Dromio of Syracuse cries to his master when he is accosted by Nell, the lady friend of Dromio of Ephesus who tries to “lay claim” to him. The audience laugh at the crude anatomical-geographical puns.  Then come Dromio’s tears of despair, and the audience laughs.  When he has long left the stage, we can still hear him crying, and the audience laughs some more.  There is also the funny exchange about the correlation between wit and hair.  And the amusing speech where Dromio of Ephesus relays his master’s strange behaviour to the master’s wife – “My gold, quoth he…My meat, quoth I” and more.

Silbert’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play, with its fast-paced and furious banter perfectly reflects the confusion and chaos that can occur because of mistaken identities.  If you are Shakespeare-shy don’t worry – this adaptation makes Shakespearean language highly accessible. It is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare for new, as well as long established, fans and the jokes keep on coming.

The Comedy of Errors will be running at Royal Exchange until 8 May 2010. To book tickets visit the theatre’s website.