Nancy Meckler's RSC production takes a while to get rolling, having identity problems of its own. The market place and the house owned by Antipholus of Ephesus are full of cranky folk in Regency-cum-rockabilly gear. Some of them could grace a catwalk, especially the police force who resemble piratical dandies, strolling about in wonderful striped peppermint shirts and crimson waistcoats, with bandanas under their stovepipe hats. Others have stepped out of a Victorian circus, accompanied by the odd string puppet.
Presumably, Meckler and her designer Katrina Lindsay want to suggest the fun is timeless and this place (historically associated with sorcery) is playful, magical and dream-like. In practice though, the effect is superficial. The milling extras look like rejects from Shockheaded Peter and Oliver!. The sugary lighting, in turquoise and tangerine, doesn't help, nor do the cloying musical numbers between scenes which retard the comic pace.
At first, the evening merely feels dozy. Richard Cordery, telling the back story as Egeon, is stolid and little is made of the xenophobic Duke of Ephesus arresting all enemy immigrants. Meanwhile, the locale itself appears to be all or half at sea, with sloping triangular white walls suggesting sails. Certainly, that could reflect the protagonists' inner confusion: they were shipwrecked 30 years ago and are being thrown off-balance again now, losing their grip on reality. Indeed, you would think that Meckler (of Shared Experience fame) was the perfect director to further explore the siblings' disturbed sense of self, via physical expressionism. Disappointingly though, no-one ever acts as if they're in a real whirl. The puppets are artistically underdeveloped as well, basically only featuring as a prologue to the full-grown twins.
That said, Suzanne Burden admirably livens things up as the spouse of Christopher Colquhoun's gallivanting Antipholus of Ephesus, tossing herself to the ground in fits of cod-melodramatic grief. Joe Dixon is increasingly winning as the nervous tourist, Antipholus of Syracuse, directly addressing the audience and launching into an irresistibly silly joke-tribal dance to ward off witches. He and his perky sidekick, Jonathan Slinger's Dromio, are a fine double act with observational routines about hair and fat ladies, and Slinger is often outstanding, sporting a vast ginger quiff, rolling with the punches and slapping his ice-cream cone on his bruised forehead. Forbes Masson, as his surlier brother, is also hilariously flipped sideways and used as a small human battering ram.
Nevertheless, as the culminating show in the RSC's Comedies season - which has boasted sustained rehearsals with a core ensemble - this is no great shakes. The company's next big project should be far more exciting: acting as host to a wealth of other world-class companies in a collaborative staging of the playwright's entire opus.
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