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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE COMEDY OF ERRORS
at the National (Olivier)

SEPARATED AT BIRTH
By JOHN NATHAN

  Lenny Henry/ Ph: Johan Persson

It is often a good idea to emphasize deadly seriousness before frothy farce takes hold. It can help anchor a comedy plot that is so far fetched you need a forklift to suspend your disbelief. Director Dominic Cooke – doing a bit of moonlighting from the Royal Court, where he is artistic director – does it by portraying the Duke of Ephesus and his henchmen as a bunch of gangsters who are ready to put a bullet into the brain of their captive Egeon.

This is a modern dress production of Shakespeare’s early farce. Bunny Christie’s urban design consists of tower blocks and neon-lit backstreets populated by hookers and clubbers. If this is the city of Ephesus, we are clearly somewhere downtown.

The buildings also serve as the storm-tossed ships that, as Egeon relates, bore his twin baby sons. When Shakespeare wrote the speech about how the babies were separated from each other and their parents, the Bard hadn’t reckoned on the resources of the National’s revolving Olivier stage. Cooke uses it to provide an impressive dumb-show accompaniment to Egeon’s back-story.

But once the serious stuff is out of the way, the evening delightfully and permanently changes gear with the arrival of our first twin Antipholus, played by comedian Lenny Henry. What follows is proof that plot can be as silly as you like as long as the emotions are true. Here it concerns identical twins (played by Henry and Chris Jarman) who have identical twin servants (Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser). Each pair is unaware of the other duo’s presence. 

During the ensuing confusion Henry brings a certain endearing naiveté to his role. Whether it is the kind that comes from inexperience – this is only his second Shakespearean role after his Othello, which went down rather well – is hard to tell. But it is a quality that well suits his Antipholus. Offers of sex from Adriana, wife of the second Antipholus (one was renamed in honor of the other, who was presumed dead, you see) are accepted with bewilderment and glee. So is the jeweled chain ordered by one Antipholus, although delivered to the other. 

But for all its charm, Henry’s lumbering presence – mirrored by Jarman's other twin – is left standing by Claudie Blakely’s shrill Adriana. Tottering on deadly heels Blakely steals every scene in which she is present, bringing all the timidity of a gangster’s moll to her role. When she decides that her husband has lost his mind and calls in the men in white coats, the antics build to a vortex of slapstick during which the entire cast clambers around the revolving set in a chase that Benny Hill would have been proud of. He certainly would have been delighted to see the two Dromio servants swap insults by breaking wind at each other.

It is fair to say that the language of Shakespeare is not a priority here. But then, nor was it for Shakespeare, who clearly wanted his audience in sidesplitting fits of laughter. Cooke’s production gets his punters nowhere near that state. The evening is fun rather than very funny. Yet that lesson about emotional truth is well delivered and taken. For when the silly stuff finally makes way for the family reunion, it is as if the heart admonishes the head forever doubting that the plot is anything other than utterly true.

 


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