Peter Buckroyd reviews The Comedy of Errors, SE Theatre Company, The Attic Theatre, 27th December
While Tread the Boards company is rehearsing its winter pantomime which opens on 12th December the second of the theatre companies visiting the Attic gave a presentation of Shakespeare’s early comedy. It was drastically cut to two halves of 45 minutes each, mainly consisting of a string the Shakespeare’s elaborate linguistic jokes. Everything was stripped back to a farce about mistaken identity. Gone were Shakespeare’s treatment of grief and loss, the extended metaphor of psychological shipwreck, the sometimes painful marital discord, the backdrop of the influence of the Church, the sense of reconciliation and redemption at the end where what was lost is found. Instead we experienced the Ministry of Silly Walks, some extraordinary twisted postures, a lot of random shouting and an amazing ballet of the most extraordinary hand and arm gestures.
Beginning with a Punch and Judy show outlining the play’s background and plot the play (according to the programme) was set in a British seaside town, present day. There was a very nicely painted backdrop (hired from Themes Unlimited) of a typical seaside scene and a seagull suspended from a rafter at a precarious angle upstage left. There was a barn doorway on castors and a deck chair in the second half. As well as the entertainment of the Punch and Judy show there was a ballet of toy ships for the shipwreck. Swords were seaside spades, shackles were a life ring, the policeman was a female lifeguard and meaninglessness was rife: the threat of cutting off a wedding ring was obviously empty because no one was wearing one.
Interestingly, by stripping the play of any psychological authenticity, director Elliott Wallis created an ultimately very bleak play. Nothing mattered. All relationships were abusive. Characters were mere caricatures. Although the text was pared back so thoroughly there was room for random interpolations of lots of famous lines from other Shakespeare plays. I spent the second half wondering how on earth ‘A horse, a horse; my kingdom for a horse’ could get included but I ended up disappointed.
Elliott Wallis placed his performers in some most unusual positions. Although the audience was very small the evening I attended there were many moments where several of the actors couldn’t be seen: on the downstage left steps, sitting in the audience, scattered in all four upstage and downstage corners with one bang in the middle. Thus the whole was impossible for the audience to take in – all creating the mood of meaningless emptiness and bleak nihilism, despite the many attempts to speak directly to the audience (rather than to each other) and to involve them (in something).
The cast consisted of five women and two men. Gender switching was prevalent. Both sets of twins were played by women and there were two men but this production wasn’t about gender or sex or infidelity or abandonment. It wasn’t about anything at all: most unusual.
It’s always difficult for a new company to adjust to an unfamiliar space, particularly one with such an unusual acting space as at The Attic. I would have enjoyed the production more without the shouting. There were a few moments without it from Dromio of Syracuse (Rachael Sparkes) Dromio of Ephesus (Rebecca Lawton) and Antipholus of Syracuse (Rebecca Pratt) where my interest was engaged.