Theater Review: NTLive’s “Comedy of Errors” — Lots of Muddle, But Magic As Well

As this is the only work that Shakespeare himself titles “comedy,” a company may feel an obligation to elicit laughter. Ironically, this duty can become burdensome.

The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare. Presented by The National Theatre in HD. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Check on the NTLive site to find the locations for remaining screenings in New England throughout March. Encore screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA, March 18, 10 a.m.

By Joann Green Breuer

Lucian Msamati (Dromio of Syracuse) and Lenny Henry (Antipholus of Syracuse), Jude Owusu (First Merchant) in THE COMEDY OF ERRORS. Photo: Johan Persson

With inimitable intuition, William Shakespeare anticipates the unreliability of eyewitness testimony in his early play The Comedy of Errors. The stakes are high: a death sentence for Aegeon of Syracuse. The evidence is low: pratfalls, puns, and punishments. Doubling down on Plautus’s Menaechmi, the Bard adds another set of twins. Identity confounds all classes: masters, Antipholus of Ehesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and servants, their respective if not always respected Dromios. Yes, confusion is plot, personage is resolution, yet it’s arguably, in embryo, a revolutionary farce.

This is an early Shakespeare play—how early is still arguable: let Boston’s Sylvan Barnet and the Oxford dons duke it out. Audiences may conjure echoes of Shakespeare’s later (greater) works: The Tempest also contains twins separated in a sea’s storm; Errors’s necklace morphs to Twelfth Night’s ring. “We know what we are but know not what we may be” muses Ophelia, while her Hamlet “holds a mirror up to nature.” But this is to make too light of the voice of the young poet here. To say “by knowing you, I know myself” is to know a lot. It is Dromio, a servant, who recognizes himself in another, “my glass and not my brother.” Herein is a faint echo of the moral necessity to see the stranger as oneself.

The roles of women display unusual equality as well. Adriana and Luciana are not peeress and maid but sisters. Adriana is married to one Antipholus, and we can assume Luciana will marry the other. Note that, unlike most other non-tragic plays of Shakespeare, this one does not end in a marriage ceremony but in marriage recognition (Aegeon and Aemilia, the “abbess.”) Identity is the issue played round about until eventually proved.

As this is the only work that Shakespeare himself titles “comedy,” a company may feel an obligation to elicit laughter. Ironically, this duty can become burdensome. Forced humor lacks conviction, a groan is far from a giggle, and audience silence is not always a sign of defeat. Considering the number of beatings poor Gromio the second (of Syracuse) endures in Ephesus, one might consider taking this comedy as serious slapstick, after all.

In his initial engagement with the National Theatre of London, Dominic Cooke, artistic director of the far smaller and less spaciously equipped Royal Court Theatre, has been tempted, and has attempted with limited success, to make as much ado as possible on the National’s large, rotating Olivier stage and with its technical accouterments (set design by Bunny Christie). The idea is to get as much of the world of Errors and its shifting individualities in front of the audience: the play’s comedy, agony, and fantasy. The production is, therewith, often a muddle, with occasional magic moments.

After 32 Royal National theater productions, 11 film adaptations, The Boys from Syracuse and Bombitty of Errors, music, madcap, and minimalism, one might yearn for the unique. Cooke chose to set Ephesus as contemporary London, in pool hall, house of ill repute, and working-class street scenes, with whistling proletarians enjoying the action. Social reality is the sturdy base for Cooke’s often over-the-top frolics. He keeps up the effort to capture comedy and message, but it is an effort, sometimes strained, until the final recognitions.

A scene from THE COMEDY OF ERRORS – foreground Lenny Henry (Antipholus of Syracuse) Photo: Johan Persson

For Americans, the primary muddle is getting the accents, not the British ones but the (?) Jamaican ones. Kudos to anyone who can grasp what Dromio2 says most of the time. We know the action is played to be funny because of the physicality: snapping fingers, doing a jitter to ward off supposed wraiths, and leveling low punches at private parts. There is the even lower humor of the vaudeville, fart variety. I did not smile at these, although a duel of knees and knives was sweetly, aptly clever.

I smiled at the surprisingly touching moments, which come infrequently until late, but then arrive with reassuring clarity and compassion. There are intervals of sheer entertainment. A quartet of musicians edges the stage between scenes, accompanying themselves in Romanian folk songs on accordion and guitar. It’s a charming breather, though I am not sure to what end, save covering the furious scene changes between the rhythmically erratic acts. I am, with regret, reminded of director Bill Rauch’s better integrated incorporation of roving buskers at Cornerstone Theater and at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Eventually, thankfully, the production marks its theatrical mettle. The long finale of The Comedy of Errors is here spun legato, largo. Cooke takes his time with the looks of brother to brother, father to son. The indulgent mugging that marks Lenny Henry (Antipholus of Syracuse) and Chris Jarman (A. of Ephesus) and their Dromios (Lucian Marshall and Daniel Poyser) dissipates and dissolves into vision: theirs and ours.For all, and for all time, recognition is redemption.

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