Seeing The Comedy of Errors on voting day for Scotland’s independence referendum did lend itself to one great joke. As Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen wench who claims to be his wife, he realizes that she is so fat, she’s spherical, like a globe. His master Antipholus, delighted, encourages him to describe where various countries would be located on her body, and Dromio finds Spain in the heat of her breath and the Indies in the ruby-like warts on her nose, and so on. “Where was Scotland?” Antipholus asks. A long, long silence. Cue applause.
Sure, it’s an easy joke, but I’m coming around at last to the belief that The Comedy of Errors is a celebration of the easy joke. And the Globe’s latest production embraces this idea wholeheartedly. Watching a man punch an octopus is funny. The set falling down is funny. Characters’ unending confusion at two pairs of identical twins is just funny. Sometimes you’re just in a mood for a silly comedy, and when you are, who needs anything more?
But it’s Shakespeare, of course, so there is more, even if it’s ignored for most of the play in favor comic beatings and ridiculous misunderstandings. This production manages to excavate more angles than many others by clearly differentiating the sets of brothers (in terms of personality if not necessarily looks) and by allowing Adriana and Luciana, respectively the wife and potential love interest of the two Antipholuses, to be actual characters rather than shallow, shrieking shrews.
To recap, The Comedy of Errors is the one about twin brothers who were separated at birth. Accompanied by their slaves (not their servants, a detail I think most productions try to gloss over), who were also identical twins, they have established separate lives in Ephesus and Syracuse. The brothers from Ephesus travel to Syracuse in search of their missing halves, and immediately embark on a day of mistaken identities as each brother is taken for the other by townspeople, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife Adriana, and each other.
In The Public Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park production of the show last summer, Hamish Linklater’s performance as both brothers made clear to me for the first time the unsettling side of the doubled Antipholuses: his Syracusan brother was poetic and a bit bumbling (though still prone to giving out beatings), while the Ephesean Antipholus was blunt and hot-tempered, seemingly as much feared as respected by his fellow townspeople. Antipholus of Syracuse’s confusion at being shied from and groveled to was therefore both amusing and alarming: why was he being taken not only for someone he wasn’t, but for that kind of person? In the Globe’s production, the two Antipholuses (Simon Harrison and Matthew Needham) highlight a similar divide, but the stark and, for me, really revelatory difference was between the two Dromios.
Early in the play, Antipholus of Syracuse scolds his Dromio for being too cheeky: “Because that I familiarly sometimes/Do use you for my fool and chat with you,/Your sauciness will jest upon my love/And make a common of my serious hours.” Brodie Ross’s Dromio revels in the fool’s license that his master grants him, and his incredulity at his treatment at the hands of Antipholus of Ephesus’s family is funny and telling. In one particularly charming moment, he is thrilled when Adriana actually seems interested in hearing one of his long passages of punning, she both amused and confused by her slave’s sudden wit.
Jamie Wilkes’s Dromio of Ephesus, on the other hand, is the more long-suffering of the two, more given to physical comedy and violent treatment at the hands of his master. His indignity bursts forth in a late passage that I found rather shocking, in which he complains at length and with apparent earnestness about the abuse he has suffered, and the patience with which he has suffered it. Not unexpectedly, the play bounces back into comic misunderstanding before this jarring intrusion of lower class frustration can be acknowledged. These vastly differing relationships contribute to the odd but fitting uneasiness of the ending, where it seems abundantly clear in a way that is difficult to laugh off that the arrival of the twins and their vastly different master/servant relationship will unsettle much more than it will resolve.
I was tempted to see the two Dromios in this production of the embodiment of two types of Elizabethan fooling: the witty fool and the natural fool. Dromio of Syracuse would be the former, the fool who relies on wordplay and puns; Dromio of Ephesus the latter, a fool whose amusement stems from natural stupidity. Though this would probably accurately characterize how the respective Antipholuses would view their slaves, it’s not really a fair division, particularly to Dromio of Ephesus, who is much smarter than he’s ever allowed to be. Though it is easy to see the differences between the twins as an opportunity for Shakespeare to highlight the differing comic talents of two company members.
Speaking of company members, one must of course raise the question of identical actors. The trend in the USA at the moment (including Shakespeare in the Park and twice at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival) seems to be to cast one actor as both brothers, resulting in some very funny quick changes and sudden entrances, but sucking the energy out of the final moments, as the twins of course cannot actually see and react to one another. The Globe, on the other hands, goes the presumably more traditional route of casting two pairs of actors who look roughly the same and dressing them identically. The result is that the audience is never quite as confused as the characters are, which proves to be a good thing. Though perfectly identical actors would, of course, be a very neat visual, the relative ease in telling the sets apart helps further emphasize the idea that, in terms of personality, to confuse these pairs of men is somewhat ridiculous.
Among those who suffer most from the confusion (besides the men themselves, of course) are their women: Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’s wife, and her sister Luciana, who finds herself the object of Antipholus of Syracuse’s affections. Adriana is generally characterized as shrieking and violent, scolded by her sweet sister and barely tolerated by her longsuffering husband. And of course she is. But Hattie Ladbury’s Adriana, particularly paired with Becci Gemmell’s pretty and primly disapproving Luciana, finds not just sympathy, but reason in Adriana’s tirades. Though the ladies live in the same heightened comic vein as everyone else, director Blanche McIntyre permits them to have traces of humanity at their core just as much as the leading men do. This rescues the scenes with the women from becoming just shouting contests, and rebalances the play, particularly the final scene, where characters’ long monologues of competing versions of events can become tiresome when Antipholus is the only character onstage who has been portrayed as at all sane.
Now, don’t get me wrong. This is still a play where a man punches an octopus, and a cheap joke at Scotland’s expense fits perfectly. But McIntyre seems to understand and carefully build out the scaffolding of humanity upon which all this ridiculousness rests, resulting in a riotously funny evening that still never feels shallow.