Though dramatically lacking, Christopher Luscombe’s new production of Shakespeare’s less-than-loved comedy is a great piece of entertainment, a droll hybrid of Carry On slapstick and Up Pompeii campness.
The latest work in the Globe’s Rome-themed summer season, it’s all about the humour, and the fact that both cast and audience were clearly enjoying themselves immensely made up for its more obvious shortcomings.
Luscombe’s production has been stripped down to its Plautean comic roots, but in doing so it sacrifices the intricacy and emotion that Shakespeare brought to the story. This loss of depth and complexity initially leaves one feeling rather dissatisfied, but fortunately, as a piece of pure comic theatre, this Comedy is very successful. The cast’s sense of pace and timing was impeccable throughout and the audience’s continual laughter was testament to their skill.
Having said that, the evening began poorly with Richard O’Callaghan’s tragic father Egeon recounting the heartbreaking tale of the loss of his wife and child as if he had merely lost a contact lens. The death sentence hanging over his head doesn’t seem to faze him in the slightest. It was the one dud performance of the evening, failing to evoke any pathos or even much interest.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the comedy to kick in and this is where this production excels. The story itself contains plenty to make you chuckle: two sets of twin brothers are separated at birth and twenty years later they end up in the same town where their wives, slaves and lovers mistake one for the other – and yet another Shakespearean tale of mistaken identities inevitably unfolds. With a loony magician, a bawdy courtesan and a few togas thrown in for good measure.
The two sets of twins were played very competently, with Simon Wilson as Antipholus of Ephesus and Andrew Havill as Antipholus of Syracuse. Their energy seemed everlasting and they skilfully nailed the farcical elements of the narrative. Havill’s perforance was particularly strong, a winning cross between Michael Crawford and Kenneth Williams, this exaggeration in keeping with then over-the-top percussive backing music that accompanies the onstage action.
Eliot Giuralarocca, as Dromio of Ephesus, and Sam Alexander, as Dromio of Syracuse, are also capable comic actors. Yet although very funny to watch, these characters leave a minimal impression, due, in part, to the lack of emotional complexity in Luscombe’s production, and also because the female performers are so vibrant and extrovert the men are often overshadowed.
The character of Adriani was played with a sassy twist by Sarah Woodward. Along with Cate Debenham-Taylor as the courtesan and Darlene Johnson as the Abbess, the women really made the show – and they certainly grabbed the most laughs.
There was a definite echo of a Carry On era Barbara Windsor in Debenham-Taylor’s performance; with Johnson equally excellent in what I guess would be the Hattie Jacques role. Playing the Abbess Aemilia, Johnson was at first staunch and very official, with a great stage presence and a real gravitas but her heart melted when she recognised her long-lost husband – supplying the production’s only truly touching scene.
For a Globe production one would hope for a little more depth than Luscombe provides, more focus on and development of the play’s complex emotional layers. Yet as a piece of pure entertainment, this hit all the right buttons – making for a highly enjoyable and extremely funny night at the theatre.