By a kitschy coarsening of the atmosphere, productions tend to collude with an audience's initial impulse to find the conclusion primarily ridiculous. For example, the Abbess, that wimpled dea ex machina who emerges to identify her long lost family, is flanked by subversively sycophantic nuns in the current Regent's Park staging.
Tim Supple's wonderful new RSC production at the Other Place makes no detour into apologetic distractions of this kind. There's a humane, uncluttered clarity to his vision of the piece, as is evident from the moment you walk into the theatre and see elderly Aegeon (Christopher Saul) already chained to a grid in the centre of the sun-baked brick courtyard.
A puckish economy informs the proceedings, too. Instead of the row of portals customary in Plautine comedy, Robert Innes Hopkins's set has just one multi-purpose double-door set into the brick facade, drolly serving as the threshold or barrier to everything from whore-house to abbey.
From the start, music of a beguilingly Arab flavour and performed on such unfamiliar instruments as the balafon, mbira and zarb, conditions our responses to this depiction of Ephesus. It's underscoring of events allows Supple to demonstrate that the farce and romance elements in the play have their tonal overlaps. Of course, sometimes the emphasis it adds is purely knockabout, as during the regular beatings administered to the shaven-headed, shorts-wearing Dromio twins (played with utter charm by Dan Milne and Eric Mallett).
But the high, other-worldly sounds are a constant reminder of Ephesus's renown for witchcraft and sorcery. They bring an elusive air of mystery to the farcical muddlings. So, when Robert Bowman's excellent Antipholus of Syracuse is suddenly claimed as husband by a woman he has never clapped eyes on or pestered about bills for goods of which he knows nothing,his reactions of superstition and incredulity are, at times, stilled into something much more like the dazed wonder of a character during the climactic unfolding of a romance. Never have I seen this twin's worries over personal identity more delicately delineated.
Supple is careful to qualify the happiness of the ending. Here, realistic hints of a less than cloud-free future temper all the marvelling. Sarah C Cameron's Adriana looks far from overjoyed that the courtesan with whom her husband dallied has been invited to the feast. As Supple directs them, touching differences emerge in the reunions. For example, Simon Coates's subtly acted Antipholus of Ephesus simply cannot bring himself to copy his more demonstrative twin's gesture in giving his servant a warm, smacking kiss. An intelligent delight.
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