March 22, 2012 2 Comments
at the Olivier Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012
Dominic Cooke had already been tipped by many to be the next artistic director of the National Theatre whilst Nicholas Hytner is still yet to announce his leaving date and before Cooke himself had even ventured into the building to direct something there. After The Comedy of Errors, however – his first production at the National – he’s lost a few places in the race for me. For, although this cosmopolitan production at the Olivier is impressive and creative, it fails to do what it says on the tin. It’s just not that funny.
Cooke has set the play in modern day London, complete with multicultural population and Soho nightclubs. It works perfectly for the play – themes of displacement in a community are drawn out, creating parallels with Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners and commenting wittily on one’s anonymity in a city. Bunny Christie’s astonishing design is the best I’ve seen in a long time, shifting and never in stasis, just like London itself. In one scene, we see the grimy backstreets, and in another the wealthy facades of Chelsea (a nice touch sees the three tower blocks lined up, with a single door on either side and a double door in the middle, echoing the configuration of the Globe). Ephesus here is remarkably recognisable, and Cooke keeps the verse snappy and modern – no mean feat in a theatre as grand as the Olivier.
But where the production fails is in its comedy. The visual jokes feel tired and cliched – pie in faces springs to mind – and it feels like not a lot of effort has gone into thinking about how the team could create their own comedy rather than just relying on gurning to the audience and silly voices. Lenny Henry in the role of Antipholus of Syracuse, for example, falls back too much on his infamy as a television actor in order to gain laughs; the humour in this production pales in comparison to the likes of One Man, Two Guvnors and Noises Off.
A generally strong cast (excepting the ensemble, who are nigh on ridiculous), is let down somewhat by Henry, whose verse speaking is close to incomprehensible and who, although emotionally strong, is let down by his lack of theatrical technique. Chris Jarman, as his opposite Antipholus of Ephesus, is the other way round; he is theatrically adept but emotionally barren. Daniel Poyser and Lucian Msamati as the two Dromios give us most of the laughs, even though their personalities are a little too similar. It is the two central women of this production, however, who stand out; Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry as Adriana and Luciana respectively are simultaneously human and ridiculous, though I question the decision to make them both seem devoid of great mental capacity.
Paule Constable’s subtle lighting allows Christie’s superb set to shine, whilst Gary Yershon’s fantastic music creates hilarious scene changes as a group of four musicians plays pop songs in romanian – a nice touch which adds to Cooke’s comment on multiculturalism, especially when placed against the opening of the second act, during which we hear Dizee Rascal’s Bonkers blasted through the speakers. Although Cooke’s concept is sound, however, adding an extra dimension to the play which has rarely been considered, it is frustrating that this production fails to deliver on the most basic points. Perhaps it should be renamed The Play of Errors.