"Paranoia," says David Farr, "that's my fascination with the play. It captures modern paranoia remarkably well for such an ancient text." Farr, the joint artistic director of the Bristol Old Vic, who directed last year's critically acclaimed Coriolanus, is talking about his latest project, Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, which he has set in the 1920s in an unspecified European city. "It's very short, very fast and there's a real strangeness to it. Its world is unstable, absurdist and frightening. It shows how quickly the fabric of the carefully controlled self falls apart if just one little thing changes."
The play tells the story of two pairs of twins who were each separated as babies from their twin, and who find themselves in the same city on the same day - with a doppelgänger on the loose. One finds himself having dinner with his "wife", whom he has never met before; the other is barred from his own house, being told that he is already at home. Farcical coincidences pile up, but underlying them, says Farr, are issues about identity, justice and reputation.
"One of the characters has a fantastic line: 'Am I myself?' It's a magical and strange world which has anxiety feeding it. It's full of angst; it's not realistic, and it's not English - it's Kafka meets the Marx brothers in a European, modernist world. It's not an innocent play; it's scary and enthralling. It's not like A Midsummer Night's Dream, which is so magical. It's very pure comedy, anarchic and brutal. It asks what happens if someone comes and knocks on my door and arrests me. It's the comedy of panic."
All of which is very well - but is it funny? Farr asserts: "All comedy is funny because it tells us truths that we recognise through laughter, but that doesn't mean it can't be unnerving. Think of Fawlty Towers; it can be very, very dark, but by God it's funny. The two things are not in opposition."
To create the look of the piece, Farr is working with production designer Ti Green, with whom he previously collaborated on both Coriolanus and The Taming of the Shrew (in Nottingham). He says that the set doesn't have any identifiable buildings, but admits to having been influenced by the look of Prague.
When he is not directing, Farr is also a writer who has had his plays produced at the Young Vic, Bush, RSC and Queen's Theatre in London's West End. He hopes to maintain this dual career: "Directing is extrovert and gregarious; writing is isolating, introverted and lonely. I'd like to be able to go on doing both, though I'm definitely in a directing phase at the moment." As for the audience, how does he hope they will feel when they leave the theatre? "I hope they leave exhilarated. This kind of furious comedy at its best is hysterical in the true sense of the word. The laughter is born from deep uncertainty, even panic, and that is what makes it so funny."
'The Comedy of Errors', Old Vic Theatre, Bristol (0117 987 7877) 3-25 OctoberReuse content