INTERVIEW: The Comedy of Errors actors Greg Haiste and Jonathan Broadbent on playing the Dromio twins in the new RSC production
The first production on at the new RSC Garden Theatre is a vibrant production of The Comedy of Errors. Playing the twin servants are Jonathan Broadbent as Dromio of Syracuse and Greg Haiste Dromio of Ephesus. Here the duo tell Gill Sutherland about the play and why it’s the perfect post-lockdown entertainment.
The Comedy of Errors feels like the right production to come back with doesn’t it?
Greg: It certainly feels like it. It’s full of joy, it’s about reconciliation and reunion and it’s got loads of jokes in it.
Johnny: I think we need some entertainment, some fun and laughter… a bit like Noel Coward after the Second World War. There’s going to be time for some soul searching but I think right now some laughter is what we need to bring us all back together again.
It’s been a funny old world without live theatre, what do you think people have missed?
J: Theatre is a form of communion and people have not even been allowed to go to church. Whatever religion you are, when you hear a piece of music or a play starts it’s like the audience start breathing at the same time, and hopefully with this they will start to laugh at the same time. I think that’s going to be incredibly powerful.
G: No matter what time or culture you’re in – 800BC in Greece or 1500AD in China – standing in a space and telling a story is a very human thing to do, I can’t think of a culture that doesn’t do it. Everything has become overwhelming in the last year or so, and it feels like we need this back and to feel brighter about life. With people not having seen their families for ages, the stuff in the play about love and loss lands quite pertinently.
The production was meant to be on last year, but in a funny way there’s almost a happenstance that it’s on now – what with the family reunion stuff.
G: Yes absolutely, and it’s a colourful show that we’re getting to put on a new stage. Although it does have resonance, it’s a farce, it’s just like Fawlty Towers really – a classic comedy of frustrated people. The audience might find it funny but the people in the play are having the worst day of their lives because they are so confused about what’s going on. All the silliness is there to enjoy with the minor key stuff.
J: Like a lot of Shakespeare comedy it isn’t funny unless you’re mined the heart of it first. If you want people to cry at something make them laugh first – or is it the other way round?
G: It works both ways.
J: It happens in the space of a day, and time is almost like a character in the play. There’s a pressure of time driving the drama and plot forward, and we’ve all had quite an interesting relationship with time over the last 18 months. I think it’s going to work for people on lots of levels, and people are going to hear it differently coming from the other side of things opening up again than they might of have done if it had been business as usual.
You’re playing twins, how is that?
J: We’re looking at a few moments where we’re doing mirroring and stuff like that, but actually we’re not on stage together much. What I find fascinating is that they are not at all alike, and possibly that’s to do with where they were brought up: Syracuse is more arty like Florence whereas Ephesus is more like Dubai in the 1980s, so more money orientated and violent ¬- so they’ve had different lives.
So there’s a nature/nurture thing going on.
J: Exactly. And they both have different relationships with their masters. Mine is like we’re travelling companions really – they fall out but like a married couple would. That’s one shade of that comedy relationship: that servant/master thing.
G: I think of his boss as being more Michael Palin whereas my Antipholus is more like a frustrated Basil Fawlty; he’s been in the army and he’s a peacock of a man and gets very frustrated. We are both foundlings, and I resent the fact that he’s the boss because we were found together. We have this intense relationship – and I get hit a lot.
J: I heard that with people having more time on their hands during the pandemic they’ve been ordering DNA testing kits and discovering they ‘ve got a DNA twin somewhere in the world, and it’s an extraordinary thing to find out on many levels. For a lot of the people it’s been like they’ve found part of a missing jigsaw.
G: We certainly have that in this play – our director Phillip Breen has encouraged that: there’s something not quite right, something missing – then it all comes together.
The Dromios are kind of simplistic but also have a clown/cipher role – what do they give the play?
J: Dromio means running track in Greek…
G: And I’m certainly running all over the place. And my surname’s Haiste.
J: I think you can smell the roots of medieval mystery plays that Shakespeare would have seen, and Commedia dell'arte. Those stock character types and the relationships, in particular servants and masters, is laced through this.
G: My take on it is whatever situation the Dromios get themselves in they are always trying to joke their way out of it, they live on their wits, sometimes in order to escape a beating. No matter what desperate straits they are in they joke around, they are the Chandler Bings of the friendship group.
J: Servants are always more intelligent than their masters in plays and that’s the fun part of the relationship. Plus I’m always hungry, so I eat a lot in this.
This is a physical farcical comedy, is that something you’ve both done a lot of?
J: Very much so. We’ve got lots of comedy air miles between us.
G: People ask what are you doing when you’re playing comedy, and I always say you’re playing the truth of it. Using the Basil Fawlty example, if you think Basil is having a good time because he’s in a comedy you lose all the humour – if you don’t think he’s really scared of Sybil it’s not as funny.
Director Phillip Breen has brought some great comedy romps to the RSC – The Hypocrite and more recently The Provoked Wife – so he seems like the right man for this job.
J: He’s brilliant, you need a strong hand on the tiller because funny is different for everybody. It’s about tone, language and the world of the play. Once we get an audience in to watch they are going to tell us where the elastic of the humour can be stretched or cut short a little bit if it needs to be.
G: The interesting thing with rehearsing it a lot is that everyone laughs at first and then eventually you end up doing it to a room where no one’s laughing.
J: I’m expecting this afternoon’s run-through to be as funny as Covid.
G: I get to see Johnny’s scenes and it’s great to see what he’s doing.
J: When you watch the other Dromio you sort of go oh I have a joke that’s an evolution of that – so mentally you plot things through. Some of it’s a bit of like solving a Rubik’s cube or sudoku.
G: It’s such a complicated plot – if it was a modern writer they would have post-it notes all over the wall. You kind of think how did Shakespeare do this?
J: It ends with the servants and I think that’s quite interesting. Because in Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Shakespeare ends with the lord and the ladies, but in this he ends with the workers and I think there’s something ‘of the people’ about that.
Tell us about the Dubai setting.
G: It’s a mash-up of new money, eastern promise and western influences. It’s set in the 1980s and we’re really looking forward to seeing the costume – lots of fun with wigs and outfits that will bring some colour to it.
J: We both grew up in the 1980s so those references are massive for us. All the films we grew up on – there’s a few references for the cineastes in the audience .
It sounds like a lot of fun, and a production that will have a broad appeal.
G: One of the reasons I love doing comic theatre is it’s one of the best experiences you can have: masses of people just enjoying themselves really.
J: The Comedy of Errors is a good one for people new to Shakespeare or the theatre; it’s short and it’s funny.
G: After the year we’ve had just seems like we feel really lucky to be doing a really pertinent show.
Before we end, just tell us how you got started in acting.
G: I grew up in Headingly, Leeds, where the cricket ground is. I had a lot of excess energy as a kid and the story is that my mum, who was a Tupperware rep, met someone at one of her parties who ran a local drama group and said I should come along, so I started when I was eight. Thrillingly Mr and Mrs Armstrong who ran the group are coming to Stratford to see the show.
J: I got bitten by the bug bit at school and I was involved with the Globe in London. I had a great teacher of English and drama at school – Michael Day – he’s quite like Greg actually.
G: What charming, funny, looks like Keanu Reeves and is probably the next James Bond?
What about first acting heroes?
G: My drama teachers the Armstrongs brought me to Stratford to see Mark Rylance in Romeo and Juliet directed by Terry Hands. The whole production was fantastic, and there was something about Rylance – it didn’t sound like Shakespeare, he made it so accessible
J: It’s got to be Tim Curry in The Pirates of Penzance.
G: Our Dromios are definitely more Tim Curry than Mark Rylance, as it should be with this play!
The Comedy of Errors runs from tonight (Tuesday) until mid-September. Book tickets via www.rsc.org.uk
About the play
The Comedy of Errors is believed to be one of Shakespeare's earlier written plays (c1594); a comedy about separated family and mistaken identity.
The play begins with Aegeon telling his story. Thirty-three years before the play begins, Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse, became the father of twin boys. He named them both Antipholus and bought another pair of twins, both named Dromio, to be their servants.
Aegeon and his wife were travelling home with their sons and the servants when they were shipwrecked in a violent storm. Aegeon managed to save only one Antipholus and one Dromio and he has never seen the rest of his family since.
Antipholus and Dromio arrive in Ephesus in search of their long-lost twin brothers, unaware that their father has also arrived there on the same quest. As a citizen of Syracuse, a city at war with Ephesus, Aegeon has landed illegally in Ephesus and is arrested and condemned to death unless a ransom is paid by sunset.
Unknown to all of them, the lost Antipholus and Dromio have been living in Ephesus for many years.
On Ephesus, the strangers find themselves greeted like old friends. Antipholus of Syracuse finds that he has acquired a wife, and everyone in Ephesus seems to be behaving very strangely….