The Comedy Of Errors, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon *** <br></br> Macbeth/The Merry Wives Of Windsor, Wadham College Gardens, Oxford **/***

Surrealism and summer smiles
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The Independent Culture

"There's none but witches do inhabit here," cries Antipholus, the visiting toff twin who, mistaken for his resident sibling, finds himself harangued by a wife he has never met, familiarly greeted by strangers, and pestered by tradespeople over mysterious chains and rings. Beautifully played by Joe Dixon as a mild-mannered innocent, he keeps trying to catch the natives off-guard in some conspiracy against him. This paranoia is certainly excusable for, in Meckler's production, Ephesus is a surreal mix of pseudo-Dickensian card-sharps, mountebanks, snake-oil-salesmen and floosies in fright-wigs.

The strangeness is laid on a bit strenuously, but it does allow for some arresting touches. Puppets from a travelling show help the captive Syracusan merchant Egeon (a sad-eyed, moving, Richard Cordery) recount his long story of a family-scattering shipwreck, the splitting of the vessel suggestively emblematised by the snapping-in-two of a magician's cane. The death sentence hangs over this patriarch throughout the play and we're kept in mind of his suspended fate as, between scenes, we see him wander, under guard, through the community of cheats and gamblers, in the forlorn hope of somehow raising his ransom.

Suzanne Burden brings a real depth of pained, frustrated love to Adriana, the wife whose nagging suspiciousness has half-created that which she fears. I also admired the way that the two sets of reunited siblings are shown reacting rather differently to their good fortune. Dixon and Christopher Colquhoun (as Antipholus) dance together like happily rediscovered mirror images, but Jonathan Slinger and Forbes Masson, very funny as the Dromio brothers, are more protective of their individuality. About to clasp hands, they change their minds at the last moment and give one another a cheeky V-sign instead, bringing a warm touch of realism to the romance of the ending.

One of the beauties of watching Shakespeare outdoors is the way that sunset and nightfall can become an integral part of the dramatic experience. For its 2005 alfresco summer season, in the gardens of Wadham College, the Oxford Shakespeare Company has chosen two plays that - for very different reasons - markedly benefit from these conditions. The Merry Wives of Windsor climaxes with a farcical midnight assignation, replete with fake fairies, in Windsor Forest, while, in Macbeth, the ebbing of natural light vividly mirrors the gathering darkness of the tyrant's reign of terror in Scotland.

The chalk-and-cheese pairing of intense high tragedy and middle-brow comedy shows off the infectiously spirited teamwork of a company that is (except in the casting of one small role) all-male. But there's no disguising the fact that the talents of this outfit are better suited to Merry Wives - here presented as a likeable, unabashedly broad Sixties romp in the director Chris Pickles's truncated adaptation - than they are to entering the tormented nervous system of Macbeth, where the lack of depth in the acting is harshly exposed.

'Comedy of Errors' in rep to 29 October (0870 609 1110); 'Merry Wives'/'Macbeth' to 18/19 August, then at Kew Gardens, London, to 29 August (0870 609 2231)

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