Written by William Shakespeare, directed by Janine Watson
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
Sydney Opera House
August 17th – September 17th
Adult Premium: $98
Shakespeare’s productions have been imagined, reimagined and then imagined again over the course of the 400 or so years since he shuffled off this mortal coil. Bell Shakespeare’s touring production The Comedy of Errors is the latest to have their shot at reimagining the ever-ridiculous farce.
We’re in Ephesus on the coast of Ionia in Turkey’s Agean region, 1970. No one wears shoes, countries are at war, cowboy hats, disco and beads are all the rage, and smack dab in the middle is a tale of separated twins and mixed-up identities. Director Janine Watson has chosen to dig into identity, and how our incessant focus on wealth and debauchery can make all common-sense fall by the wayside.
The main conceit is this: Egeon (Maitland Schnaars) and his wife Emilia (Leilani Loau) have twin boys, both of whom are absurdly named Antipholus (Skyler Ellis and Felix Jozeps). Of course, they adopt another set of twins, both called Dromio (Julia Billington and Ella Prince) to serve them. Cast in a shipwreck that makes the family believe they’ve lost each other forever, add a dash of coincidence that they all end up in Ephesus, and finally pour in some confused identities and you have yourself a Shakespearean farce.
The 70’s aesthetic allows costume designer Hugh O’Connor a clear vision to play with. The result is oversized vibrant suit jackets, cowboy hats, golden chains, and purple glittery kaftans. The set design (also by O’Connor) leaves more to be desired. The set is functional and appropriate for a touring production, using three staircases to interchange the settings, but the vibrancy doesn’t truly grace the stage until after the intermission. The large ‘Wish You Were Sign’ that hung ominously above the stage until Act Two seemed misplaced for most of the show until it was later lit.
The beginning of the show similarly lacked the pizzaz of the Shakespearean farce comedy. The ominous soundscape and serious expository monologue from Egeon set the tone quite low and far too serious for a show titled The Comedy of Errors, meaning that the cast had to work significantly harder to bring the audience back up to the frivolity needed to do justice to Shakespeare’s intricately layered writing. The good news is that they do reach it, and there are a great many moments in the show of laugh-out-loud silliness.
Watson’s decision to gender-swap the Dromio’s and Luciana (here, Luciano played by Joseph ‘Wunujaka’ Althouse) was a smash-hit. Adding the twist to the boy-meets-girl-meets-partner’s-husband-and-falls-in-love trope of Luciano was played well.
Julia Billington’s Dromio is more grounded compared to the twitchy and growling Dromio of Ella Prince. The pair complement each other extremely well and allow us to see the difference between their characters – Billington is full of wonder and amazement; Prince is defiant and quick to anger. The image of the pair on either side of a mirror turning graciously across the stage was stunning, and for a moment you couldn’t tell the two apart.
The two Antipholus’ echo their foolish counterparts. Skylar Ellis’ Antipholus plays the ‘stunned mullet’ expression extremely well when confronted with the more fortunate errors that come his way. Felix Jozeps Antipholus’, like Prince, is unpredictably natured and more physical. The two Antipholus’ never fully cross into the believability of mistaken identity (one has a moustache and the other is clearly taller) and so for the regular theatre goer, it’s best to leave your disbelief at the door.
When it comes to Shakespeare, you have to trust in the writing. The Comedy of Errors is dripping in dramatic irony and the audience are trusted to know who is who, and what is going on where. Therefore, the frantic frivolity through which the production can be played is limitless. This production tends to walk when it should run. The finale, however, is as unique as it comes, choosing to revel in the poignancy of a family reunited. If it weren’t for the wrong footing of the beginning, this pay off would have been exceptional.
There are stunning visuals to be had in Bell Shakespeare’s latest. Balloons, mirrors, neon lights and a smattering of 70’s disco brings the comedy. Don’t expect the lightspeed farcical nature that others have played in this Comedy of Errors, but you can expect exceptional Dromios that devour the cadence of Shakespeare’s writing and offers much to discuss after the curtain.
The Comedy of Errors plays in Sydney until 17th September. Tickets can be booked at bellshakespeare.com.au.
Dromio of Syracuse Julia Billington
Luciano Joseph ‘Wunujaka’ Althouse
Adriana Giema Contini
Antipholus of Syracuse Skyler Ellis
Antipholus of Ephesus Felix Jozeps
Duke/Ensemble Alex King
Emilia/Pinch/Ensemble Leilani Loau
Dromio of Ephesus Ella Prince
Courtesan/Angelo/Ensemble Lauren Richardson
Egeon/Luce/Ensemble Maitland Schnaars
Director Janine Watson
Set & Costume Designer Hugh O’Connor
Lighting Designer Kelsey Lee
Composer & Sound Designer Pru Montin
Movement Director Samantha Chester
Voice & Text Coach Jess Chambers
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