at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Thursday 12th April 2012
*The performance reviewed was a preview*
And so the World Shakespeare Festival begins for me, not with a bang, but a whimper. What Country Friends is This? or the ‘Shipwreck Trilogy’ are being staged and performed throughout the cultural olympiad (I refuse to capitalise it), attempting to make comments on internationalism by “exploring dislocation, crossing borders and arriving as a stranger in a strange land”. Sounds like a wonderful utopian project with the best will in the world. The problem is, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s production of The Comedy of Errors just isn’t very good.
As if having one major production of this text already playing to large houses wasn’t enough, many of the jokes and references in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s version at the RST have already been used by the National’s – wrongly, in my opinion – much-lauded offering. With such a short and arguably straightforward play, this is inevitable, but then it’s counter-intuitive to have them both playing near-simultaneously. You’d expect the companies would at least talk to one another.
Much like Cooke’s production (comparisons are unavoidable), Zuabi makes a clear point about multiculturalist undercurrents in the play, but rather than ground it firmly in a specific time and place, it ends up occurring in a confusing jungle of inexplicable colour, but where most people seem to be of English-descent. The Duke Solinus (a half-terrifying Sandy Grierson) is clearly meant to be a Gaddafi-style dictator, yet the dark moments on stage aren’t exploited to their full worth, and it feels like our director is attempting to cross the comedy/tragedy boundary without really succeeding in either.
In terms of humour, this play makes the National Theatre’s disappointing attempt seem positively masterful. Almost every joke has been seen countless times before, and laziness takes precedence over graft. Of all the actors, the two Dromios, played both touchingly and bashfully by Felix Hayes (Ephesus) and Bruce Mackinnon (Syracuse) are able to garner the most laughter, though most of the time this is through fleeting glances rather than any cohesive direction.
Only utter fools could mix up these two Antipholuses (Antipholi?), mainly due to their substantial height difference. Jonathan McGuinness’ Syracuse could well have little-man syndrome and Stephen Hagan’s Ephesus is probably suffering from superiority complex. Then again, those who are fooled are namely Adriana and Luciana, who are here played with such idiocy and hysteria by Kirsty Bushell and Emily Taafe all sympathy is removed. There is also too much hamming from Nicholas Day as Egeon and Cecilia Noble as Emilia.
A deceptively simple shipwreck set from Jon Bausor, complete with rigging and water, is underused, but it is punctuated well with Adam Ilhan’s atonal music and Jon Clark’s bright lighting. But just like the rest of Zuabi’s production, everything seems slightly out-of-kilter and compromised. It’s solid enough, with some moments of brilliance, but you’d hope the RSC’s offering to the world in 2012 would be of a little higher standard. Let’s hope the season improves and doesn’t live up to its name.
(A footnote: I wonder whether the RSC are aware of the irony which surrounds their choice of BP as sponsor for the ‘Shipwreck Trilogy’, that company which has in the past caused so many living creatures to be washed ashore, clinging to life, just like many characters in these plays. It feels like not much thought was put into that decision.)