THEATRE / Wrack and ruin: Jeffrey Wainwright on The Comedy of Errors

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The Independent Culture
SHIPWRECK usually coughs up solitude: man, unable to go down the pub, learns monadic self-reliance in making his own shoelaces. But the proceedings of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors are teemingly social, and as complex as the intricate wrack that provoked them.

This is very much the point of Gregory Hersov's approach to the play at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, flagged in the programme and evident early on in his and designer David Short's presentation of a modern-day Ephesus. It is all port and terminus scurry as an eclectic hive of travellers - including a City type carrying a Zulu spear and shield - queue and hurry and squint at directions. The city is a place of bewildering alienation, occasional freakish good fortune and preposterous coincidence. Here everything might be lost and everything might be found.

All this might be thought to be taking The Comedy of Errors a little seriously, but that is what Hersov does. The opening scene, in which Pip Donaghy's enthroned Duke descends god-like to hear Gordon Langford Rowe's dignified Egeon tell the tale of his lost children, is solemn as the grave.

Equally, at the very end, the brief exchange between the two Dromios is made into a tentative reunion so disruptive of their own identities that they seem to wish they had remained long lost. Though this does properly award them more sensibility than is usually accorded Shakespeare's clowns, in practice it still seems contrivedly spun out.

But taking the play seriously does mean that we do feel sharply those moments when the mistaken identities so dizzy both sets of twins that they seriously doubt they have any grip on their own minds and experience.

Philip Bird's Antipholus of Syracuse is at first happy to grab what's so surprisingly offered him, but is eventually utterly and convincingly disconcerted to be in a place where 'everyone knows us and we know none'.

Even so, if it is not to be a heedless romp, the play still demands some full-blooded comic treatment and it receives it only in fits and starts. It leaps to life with such moments as when Jacquetta May's Adriana, winged but still sexy, holds forth on unfaithfulness to the wrong Antipholus before suctioning herself to him in a way that certainly suggests she knows the 'ruffian lust' of which she speaks.

The very best moments belong to Adrian Scarborough as Dromio of Syracuse. In his mortified distaste at being mistaken for his twin by the kitchen wench, he describes her as 'all grease'. Used to being the long-suffering servant, he moves through the succeeding bewilderments at a doleful, resigned waddle, though ever ready to skip at the prospect that some 'higher waftage' will enable him and his master to escape.

But the production as a whole obstinately refuses to gain enough pace for lift-off. The nightclub episode is a cumbersome set piece, and I'm increasingly of the opinion that all scenes in Shakespeare featuring mountebanks and quacks should be cut by law, however gigantic the hypodermic. It is entirely possible that the production will hit its pace and timing, but at present the comedy is wandering.

'The Comedy of Errors' is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 10 April (061-833 9833). Tours nationally May and June.