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A CurtainUp London London Review
The Comedy of Errors

Every why hath a wherefore.  — Dromio of Syracuse
The Comedy of Errors
Lucien Msamati as Dromio of Syracuse and Lenny Henry as Antipholus of Syracuse
(Photo: Johan Persson)
As I defeat the London transport system and take my seat at the National Theatre with a whole two minutes to spare, I am in the perfect state of mind to watch a hectic city comedy, a rarity from Mr Shakespeare. The Comedy of Errors was one of Will's earlier works, reflecting the emergence of the modern city, as characters rush around money-driven Ephesus trying to keep appointments with each other and failing dismally. The play is tied by one location, one plot, and one day - a format that Shakespeare would never return to.

The Duke of Ephesus has banned travellers from Syracuse, so when a merchant named Egeon is found in the city, he faces a 1000 mark fine or death. Egeon explains that he was searching for his son Antipholus, who in turn has come searching for his long lost mother and brother, accompanied by his servant Dromio. Unknown to all of them, the boys from Syracuse have twin counterparts of the same name already in Ephesus. And so begins a trail of mistaken identity as the two sets of twins fall foul of each other's mistakes, leading to debt, betrayal and incarceration.

The Comedy of Errors is a traditional comoedia from the Greco-Roman tradition, and rests on the enjoyment of farce, slapstick and caricature. Director Dominic Cooke wastes no time in getting into the action as Antipholus of Syracuse finds himself embroiled in a cafe food fight the moment he enters the city. Slapstick choreography from fight director Kate Waters uses pool cues, pies, whips, water and knives in a twisting frenzy of fun. The Olivier's rotating stage is put to good use for the climactic chase as both twins are pursued by lovers, police and an army of mental health professionals (including a real ambulance). The towering set of dilapidated town houses gives great dimension to the action as windows light up with delightfully dirty peripheral characters.

Frequent scene changes are slick and the audience is kept entertained by a Greek band performing their own version of popular songs on a theme of madness - Paloma Faith, Cee Lo Green and Dizzee Rascal numbers all feature - although the pumping dance music at interval time clearly divided the audience's appreciation. Other design, including costume, was contemporary without too many glaring modern references, but maybe the coke-sniffing prostitute was a little too much for the bouncy comedy.

Lenny Henry (as Antipholus of Syracuse) is best known for his long comedy career, but met with great acclaim for his portrayal of Othello in 2009 and doesn't disappoint in his return to Shakespeare. He gurns and squeals at every opportunity, taking inspiration from previous stand-up characters that belie his Brummie roots. It's a dangerous game to milk a pause when you're in a fast paced comedy, but he pulls it off with aplomb. The relationship between both sets of master and servant is wonderful - clearly understanding the importance of status play in such a classic text. Daniel Poyser as Dromio of Ephesus and Lucian Msamati as his Syracusian counterpart are so good at playing each other that it is genuinely difficult to tell them apart when they're not speaking in different accents.

Despite the heavy comedic atmosphere, there is some food for thought: what exactly are the madding effects of city life, forever living in a state of temporal emergency? Are our lives so easily replaced by another? And in a capitalist society, where money can get you in trouble and out of it, how do we stop it from deciding our fate? It took until the early 20th century for psychologists to address the strains of metropolitan life, but here at the birth of the city, Shakespeare poses some questions that we still can't answer, in one of his most disregarded plays (it is pretty hard to believe that a story with two sets of twins could be anything more than silly after all).

Cooke has helped the audience negotiate the difficult resolution scene by getting the background actors to give a patronising sigh of "aah" after every sweet moment of reunion - which seems never-ending. But the neat trick here is that by the time we get to the final moments of quiet happiness, it is the audience who fill in the blanks and it becomes genuinely touching, particularly when Dromio (one of them) ends with: "We came into this world like brother and brother; And now let's go hand in hand, not one before another."

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The Comedy of Errors
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Dominic Cooke

Starring: Lenny Henry, Chris Jarman, Lucian Msamati, Daniel Poyser, Claudie Blakley, Michelle Terry
With: Ian Burfield, Joseph Mydell, Tom Anderson, Jude Owuso, Silas Carson, Amit Shah, Rene Zagger, Adrian Hood, Grace Thurgood, Paul Bentall, Pamela Nomvete, Clare Cathcart
Design: Bunny Christie
Music: Gary Yershon
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Lighting: Paule Constable
Running time: Two hours 15 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 7452 3000 
Booking to 1st April 2012
Reviewed by Tim Macavoy based on 9th December  2011 performance at The Olivier, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1 9PX (Rail/Tube: Waterloo) 

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