A good production of The Comedy of Errors is like a clockwork mouse in the elephant house - wind it up, let it go, and sit back to watch the fun. It is the purest of Shakespeare's comedies, a tightly plotted farce with comparatively little in the way of subtext. As in the later Twelfth Night, the story rests on the indistinguishability of shipwrecked twins; but here, with his pair of master and servant twins, Shakespeare seems to have been largely content to play out the comic confusions, rather than using them as a background for sexual uncertainties and conflicts.
It would not be easy to do a Comedy of Errors that is wholly devoid of fun; but once you've given the two sets of separated twins their comic identifying traits (in this case, the servants, Dromio and Dromio, have extraordinary Mr Whippy ginger coiffures), there is not a lot you can do by way of interpretation. The biggest error of all is for a director to strain too hard to create an individual reading, and end up imposing something the delightfully fluffy structure won't bear.
Nancy Meckler's staging, first seen at Stratford last summer, comes within a whisker of making that mistake. Her Ephesus is a sinister Edwardian fairground - Katrina Lindsay's costumes hark back to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and the Gothic fantasies of the cartoonist Edward Gorey - infused with a touch of Regency licentiousness.
In the opening scene, in which the Syracusan merchant Egeon is sentenced to death, the air of menace is overdone, the Duke of Ephesus turned into an unpleasantly despotic figure. When Egeon's son, Antipholus of Syracuse, rolls into town and is baffled to find himself greeted cheerfully on every hand and saddled with a wife and household, he thinks of Ephesus's reputation as a haunt of witches. Meckler picks this up and runs with it, adding rather more than a touch of voodoo.
But for the most part, Meckler's obsession with subtext achieves a genuine depth and warmth. The heart of the play is Joe Dixon's dreamy, anxious, confiding Antipholus of Syracuse.
While Meckler pumps the text for laughs, she keeps nudging the audience towards an awareness of the difficulties of family life - so that at the end, with all the confusions sorted out, you are left with a satisfying sense that the real action is just beginning.
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