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The Barbican Theatre          

The Comedy Of Errors
5.0Reviewer's rating

Slapstick Shakespeare

In this early comedy (based on The Menaechmi by Plautus), we learn that a family has been separated because of an accident at sea several decades earlier. The father – Egeon – found himself alone and he has no idea whether his wife, their twin sons, and another set of adopted twins, have survived. Since then, he has been living in Syracuse as a merchant but has never given up trying to be reunited with his family and his quest has now brought him to Ephesus. Sadly for him, Ephesus is in dispute with Syracuse and so Egeon is condemned to death, unless he can raise a ransom.

Against this background it turns out that one of the two set of twins – Antipholus of Syracuse, and his servant Dromio of Syracuse – have also arrived in Ephesus and are themselves searching for their lost twin brothers. Unbeknown to them, their twin brothers are living in Ephesus and this sets up the possibility of any number of hilarious ‘errors’, as each character is mistaken for the other and they get themselves into deeper and deeper problems.  A lot highly entertaining slapstick comedy ensues as messages go astray, gold chains go missing, money disappears, and the firm sense of identity that the characters had is systematically undermined – after all, who are we if our sense of identity is challenged?

Phillip Breen’s production really helps bring out the madness of this situation. The stage swirls with colour, movement and sound. But the production’s great strength is physical comedy and energy. There are outstanding slapstick performances from all of the lead characters; Guy Lewis (as Antipholus of Syracuse) spends his time mostly bemused as he is showered with gifts he hasn’t asked for; Rowan Polonski (as Antipholus of Ephesus) gets increasingly enraged as unexplained events multiply and his moment of ‘madness’ towards the end of the play is highly entertaining; Naomi Sheldon (as Adrianna, wife of the Ephesian Antipholus) is excellent as she rages about the stage. However, special mention must be given to Jonathan Broadbent (Dromio of Syracuse). His physical comedy is quite brilliant, he builds a good rapport with the audience and the way he works with Guy Lewis in one scene (comparing various parts of a woman’s body to countries) is outstanding. Mention should also be given to Avita Jay (Luciana), Baker Musaka (Angelo) and Alfred Clay (Dr Pinch) who bring great energy, focus and humour to their performances.

Are there any downsides? Well, the verse takes a bit of a hammering in the maelstrom of physical activity and stage business, but this is a play jam-packed with puns and dense wordplay (not always easy for a modern audience to digest); so on balance it seemed the right decision to focus on joy, energy and laughter – especially when the last two years have been so tough for so many. And to judge by the enthusiastic reception from the capacity audience I would say they got the mix just right.  Oh, and what about poor old Egeon, the father condemned to death? You’ll be pleased to know that it all works out fine, as it should in a good comedy – although as usual there is a sense that the disruption experienced by these characters won’t be forgotten: the family is reunited but all of the issues are not necessarily resolved

  • Comedy
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Director: Phillip Breen
  • The Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Cast includes: Guy Lewis, Jonathan Broadbent, Rowan Polonski, Greg Haiste, Naomi Sheldon, Avita Jay.
  • The Barbican Theatre          
  • Until:  31 December 2021
  • Running Time: 2hrs 40 mins (inc. interval)

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Dr Aidan Elliott is a writer and writing coach; his YouTube channel (Dr Aidan) focuses on making Shakespeare accessible to everyone, and is watched in 127 countries; he also lectures in Shakespeare Studies at leading UK and US universities.

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