Bell Shakespeare aspire to hold the mantle of Australia’s premier Shakespearean company, but the current production of The Comedy of Errors (currently playing the Sydney Opera House as part of a national tour) is uneven and does little to inspire further engagement with these classic works.
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest and most iconic comedies. It’s a relatively short and fast paced amusing romp of swapped identities, misguided love, and farcical misunderstandings. It’s ripe for large characterisations and slapstick comedy, but any production has to find the core truth of this tale of a family torn asunder in order to really warm your heart.
Shipwrecked and separated 33 years earlier, two sets of long-lost twins miraculously find themselves in the same city on the same day. While searching for them, their father finds himself in that same city, fighting to save his own life. As this far-fetched collection of coincidences unfold, chaotic hilarity ensues and through an unlikely series of events, all is once again put to right.
This production, under the helm of director Janine Watson, sets the tale floating somewhere in a smoky 1970s Aegean-cum-Miami disco. It is colourful and succeeds in adding a certain whimsy to the mood but feels a little forced. The set is for a touring production, requiring quick bump-in for one-night only gigs, and it shows. The components are somewhat unlinked, and it feels a little too haphazard to actually amuse us enough or reinforce any sense of place.
Gender fluidity is nothing new to the world of Shakespeare, and this production delights in the chance to play fast and loose with casting. Both Dromio and Antipholus are interestingly cast and deliver credible – if somewhat stylistically different – performances. They are talented actors and squeeze out some of the best moments of the evening, garnering most of the meagre laughs.
The supporting cast are more uneven, however, and while there are flashes of success in this collection of characters, there are also some notable gaps in the understanding of the text, and the ability to deliver the language in any comprehensible way. Shakespeare is the one place where you pretty much can cast anyone to play anyone, and Watson certainly relishes that freedom. But perhaps creating a more even ensemble of performers who better understand and can uniformly deliver the archaic text to a modern audience would have proved more successful.
The sound design, featuring some very recognisable disco anthems, does little but interrupt the action. While there is a certain camp joy to a disco ball and a few balloons, such moments sit apart from the text or serve as sound gags during scene changes rather than being integrated into the action. More distraction than device, it adds little to the narrative and is played at such an innocuous volume to appear more uncomfortable than engaging.
So there it is: a derivative, choppy production with uneven performances and even more uneven pacing. While there are definitely moments of humour and a few lovely visuals, there are just as many missed opportunities and some incomprehensible slow-motion staging choices that the creative team perhaps need to examine.
If you’ve never seen The Comedy of Errors, this is a decent enough interpretation to give you a fair experience of the work and a few giggles. But it’s not really a production worthy of the title of Australia’s premier Shakespearean company in what is arguably one of Australia’s finest locations.
The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
Presented by Bell Shakespeare
Sydney Opera House
Directed by Janine Watson
Lighting Designer: Kelsey Lee
Movement Director: Samantha Chester
Voice and Text Coach: Jess Chambers
Cast: Julia Billington, Joseph Althouse, Adriano Cappelletta, Giema Contini, Leilani Loau, Felix Jozeps, Ella Prince, Lauren Richardson, Maitland Schnaars
Tickets $45 – $98
The Comedy of Errors will be playing in Sydney until 17 September then touring regionally through NSW followed by other capital cities Australia-wide.