David Farr has done it again: directed yet another Shakespearean production which effortlessly makes Britain's scariest and most abused playwright not only comprehensible and accessible, but also credible. It takes a remarkable talent to turn the Bard into must-see theatre for Generations X, Y and Z, and Farr can now comfortably assume the laurel wreath as one of Britain's most interesting and engaging directors of Shakespeare for a modern audience.
Like a rollercoaster, the play starts sluggishly, with a creaking of hawsers as director and cast struggle to haul the audience's disbelief up the steep slope to suspension. But once we've crested the hump by accepting the thunderingly unlikely premise of two sets of identically named identical twins separated in childhood and now finally brought together in one town where they constantly bump into people who get them confused, the audience find themselves launched on to the downward run of a switchback ride and let out a whoop of joy.
The comic pace is set by the out-of-town Antipholus (Christopher Staines) and his Dromio (Paul Ready). Staines is reminiscent of Niles Crane from the cult US sitcom Frasier, blending exquisite neurosis with bursts of relish at the unexpected treats which the identity mix-up provides - such as a previously unknown and gratifyingly passionate wife - while Ready plays his servant as a combination of Charlie Chaplin and Frank Spencer, offering perfectly placed physical comedy. Other noteworthy comic performances come from Daniel Betts as the resident Antipholus - a Tom Wolfe Master of the Universe brought crashing to earth in a straitjacket by the misidentifications - and Phillipa Peak as his hooting harpy of a wife. None of them deliver their comedy with particular subtlety; but since The Comedy of Errors is the granddaddy of all farce, the performances are pitched quite reasonably at the Ben Travers/ Dario Fo end of the scale.
However, there is far more to this production than mere punchlines. Maintaining a firm grip on the above-the-line comic pacing, Farr has also tapped into the bleak undercurrent in Shakespeare's piece: the exploration of how important it is to have one's own unique identity, and the social and mental chaos into which we can so easily tumble if that essential certainty is destroyed. Ti Green's set offers a faintly surreal world where things are often not what they seem, with echoes of René Magritte, M C Escher and the Prague of Franz Kafka (a name that was bound to crop up in a play about identity confusion which, as the programme notes point out, leaves victims teetering between laughter and terror). Against this backdrop, Farr's staging blends expressionism, French farce and slapstick in equal measure to present Shakespeare's play as an entirely modern absurdist comedy.
The production shows how freshly minted Shakespeare's work can still feel in the 21st century. It also establishes that Bristol Old Vic really has reinvented itself under its new artistic directors, moving from a period of rudderless mediocrity into being a hotbed of European-inspired invention at the forefront of regional theatre's revival. One can only hope that Bristolians will see that they now have a centre of excellence on their doorstep.
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