Simon Jenner on the Southbank
23 May 2023
With both this production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Sean Holmes, and Elle While’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the 2023 Globe season establishes itself as deeply considered, less gimmicky, in a word traditional. With set design and gorgeous period costumes again by Paul Wills, and a fuller text without sawn-off endings, delivered clearly with detailed gesture, this is serious farce: both dark and very funny.
Michael Elcock and Phoebe Naughton.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
It’s a more considered production too than The Comedy of Errors’ last Globe outing in 2014. It starts with nationalist flag-waving and a tumbrilled beheading, one head held aloft, as the unhappily landed Egeon (Paul Rider, epitome of melancholy), seeking his sons, is put to the block in Ephesus. The Duke of Ephesus (Philip Cumbus, playing it lightly a touch like Lucio from Measure for Measure) changes gear abruptly, giving Egeus his chance to make a speech then grant him 24 hours to seek ransom. Like While’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, there’s an attempt to darken the palate, but even more here, it can’t last: natural madcap energy’s against it. That doesn’t mean serious themes aren’t carried though.
Themes of transaction and exchange are underscored; as well as the mistaken exchange of the two sets of identical twin brothers at the heart of this 1594 comedy. Separated by shipwreck from respectively both parents and one near their birth, Antipholus of Ephesus (Matthew Broome) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Michael Elcock) are twinned with servants: Dromio of Syracuse (Jordan Metcalfe) and Dromio of Ephesus (George Fouracres was indisposed, so replaced by the able and charismatic David Ljiti, his role of Officer seamlessly taken by the non-speaking Dock Worker Aamira Challenger).
The show is also traditional with Grant Olding’s beguiling score of percussion, shawms, recorders, and cornett often onstage and present; alternating the thump of menace at the start with other instruments’ softer-grained interjections, edging order and harmony.
Shakespeare’s shortest play at 14,000 lines, here running at just 1 hour 55, it’s where he also overreaches brilliantly in double-plot, bidding to outdo his original Plautus in fiendish mistakings. Forget the improbabilities underscored by identical costumes (reproduced here in red/gold and pea-green, as they were in 2021 for Twelfth Night’s Viola and Sebastian). It’s a virtuosic game of timing and performative expectation. It’s as much as how the characters take being mistaken, as the mistaking in the first place.
George Fouracres as Dromio of Ephesus (foreground).
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Thus Elcock’s easy-going Antipholus of Syracuse can’t believe his luck as gold chains and bags of gold as well as an amorous wife are offered him. One thing not explored here is sex: so unlike the famous National Theatre production of 2012, there’s no chance he’ll wind up in bed with his mistaken wife whilst pursuing her sister, nor that wife, realizing her mistake, will still be able to slap her husband for sleeping with the Courtesan.
This production doesn’t preclude feeling, but again it’s braided with entitlement, purchase even. Luciana (Jessica Whitehurst), rather like Catherine’s sister Bianca in the profoundly uneasy The Taming of the Shrew, lectures her elder on marital submission, whilst fending off what she sees as a new adulterous passion for her sister’s husband. Whitehurst’s Luciana conveys – in a shimmering dark-pink gown – bewilderment and loyalty, rooted to the stage.
Her sister Adriana (Laura Hanna) is both more authoritative with her dealings, full of swift dispatch, but stymied when she encounters Elcock’s easy indifference. The production underscores her marriage was an arranged or urged one, from the Duke himself; it’s to him she appeals. Hers is a world of clear authority. Once imperilled, it’s hardly a step to summon the quack Pinch (Cumbus again, menacing and beaten) with his sinister-beaked helpers, attempting to straitjacket her husband.
The production doesn’t stint on resounding slaps – inflicted on Pinch and both Dromios, underscoring their permanent servitude. Unlike the Plautus, there’s no buying oneself from slavery here; it’s early-modern Britain. Again, we’re invited to consider just for a moment degrees of servitude, and how that’s transmitted. Thus in a minute of amity Metcalfe can entertain his real master Elcock with disparaging the fiancée he’s just encountered. “I can discover whole countries in her … she’s spherical.” Still garnering uneasy laughter, misogyny’s the currency of equality between master and slave – to a degree.
Claire Benedict as Abbess.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
Worth and transaction is almost sculpted in the black and gold garb of goldsmith Angelo (Hari MacKinnon), in a role that literally caries weight. His name’s a pun on gold “angels”, a British coin, rather than kin to fallen Angelo in Measure for Measure. MacKinnon playing straight gives his role gravitas.
This production’s costumes and clarity make each role tell. As First Merchant in deep-pea-green Phoebe Naughton gives urgency to a man bound to be arrested as the Second Merchant, setting out for Persia, calls in debts. As Courtesan Naughton brings again a transactional dignity, and there’s much made of surrendering of rings (code for female sexuality) but again in a world extolling justice for right exchange. As Balthazar, Naughton is an effective peacemaker where you can hear the cogs turn at the unwonted lockout of true husband Broome, as Elcock’s mistaken for him.
As unimpressed servant Luce, from the balcony used just in this scene, Danielle Phillips exudes almost pure Roman comedy dispatching interlopers at the gates. Phillips also takes the exasperated role of Second Merchant – setting off to Persia, urging the First Merchant to settle debts or menacing arrest; and Messenger, desperately warning Adriana to flee her mad husband.
Broome’s Antipholus in this production clearly experiences the opposite of his fortunate brother; it shows. The stress of suddenly being shut out of every role and recognition allows Broome a rage and exasperation as his world upends, the more forceful for the play allowing sense to breathe between bouts of mayhem.
It takes Abbess (Claire Benedict, seraphic, unflustered, firm) to unfurl logic so steadily that with Cumbus’ Duke registering each point, the denouement doesn’t sound either too abrupt or glib. Strangely the Abbess doesn’t immediately go over to her long-severed husband of 33 years back. But even here the range of recognitions tell.
This is the most intelligent Comedy of Errors I’ve seen since that NT production and truer to the play’s temper. The violence is patchy, but sketches in enough menace to explain the blows both Dromios experience almost from birth. And enough exuberance to flourish a delightful gesture between those Dromios at the end.