The Comedy of Errors (2012/13)
Directed by Terry Karabelas
Written by William Shakespeare
December 14, 2012 to January 20, 2013
Winner of the 2013 Sydney Theatre Critic Award for Best Supporting Actress to Eloise Winestock.
Stanley Wells, the great Shakespearean scholar, in his introductions to the plays in The Oxford Complete Works, asserts that: “The Comedy of Errors is a kind of diploma piece, as if Shakespeare where displaying his ability to outshine both his classical progenitors and their English imitators”
But The Comedy of Errors seems very far from a ‘tick the box’ diploma piece, even if it does outshine his contemporaries and ancient progenitors. Shakespeare borrows very heavily from Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitryon, but he manages to transform and reframe it from an ‘imitation’ of a classical text, into a very sharp, masterly farce that is implicitly metaphysical and modern with a lot more to say. Shakespeare introduces new and powerful concepts that sustains the action and invites the audience to consider the experience of the outsider, self identity, felicity and marriage, chaos and harmony, grief and loss, materialism and our individual journeys towards self discovery, without losing the comedy and farce of Plautus’ work.
Like The Tempest, The Comedy of Errors, is his most classically constructed work: taking place within in a few hours and in a single location. It is often claimed that The Comedy of Errors is his first (or at least one of his earliest work) but I find this difficult to believe. If it was his first work, then he displays a skill and ability in constructing character, action, theme and stagecraft, that far outshines some of his other works and doesn’t seem like the work of a beginner. For me, this is the work of a playwright in total control, a playwright who understands his classical references and can keep drama, farce and language counterpointed so perfectly, almost mathematically, that even the working out of the complexities of plot, is in itself a considerable intellectual feat. There is also a construction of character and situation that reverberates with modern human truth – a young man in search of himself, a father grieving for the loss of his wife and children, a broken marriage, materialism and the plight of a refugee.
Unlike Plautus’ Menaechmi and Amphitryon, Shakespeare humanizes his farcical plot by interweaving romance, grief and unfulfilled relationships. As in all of his comedies, Shakespeare threads dark and menacing tones throughout the play. At the start of the action we witness a man who is condemned to die unless a ransom of a hundred marks be paid. This is hardly the tone of comedy, let alone the farce that is about to unfold, but as Harold Bloom observes:
‘Shakespeare, who was to become the most subtlest of all dramatists, already is very ambiguous in The Comedy of Errors’
One of the dominant themes in the play is that of self-identity - of great journeys taken to find ourselves. This search is tempered throughout the play with an overlay of metaphysical examination. The twin Antipholuses are identical but their inner worlds are markedly different. The Antipholus from Syracuse has a poetic, lyrical and philosophical quality while his brother is so entirely different. They form two sides of one being: if Antipholus of Syracuse represents the soul and spirit, then Antipholus of Ephesus represents the earthier, visceral and physical aspect of our natures.
“I to the world am like a drop of water
That in the ocean seeks another drop,
Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,
Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.
So I, to find a mother and a brother,
In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself”
Antipholus of Syracuse
These lines undermine our usual impression of a farce and sustain the plays integrity with themes of estrangement and grief that began with Aegeon’s lament at losing his wife and children, more importantly they transcend the expectation of a farce. There is more to this play than first meets the eye. The genre of farce seems an unlikely place to explore inwardness and themes of isolation and self discovery yet this is precisely what Shakespeare is doing, which makes this play such a fascinating one to work on.
The play insists that we must lose ourselves in order to find ourselves, that self-awareness can only come through chaos and discord and that ultimately the transformative nature of love will prevail. Marriage and love matches in the play are counterpointed and examined with great insight and skill. Antipholus of Syracuse begins to discover himself when he falls in love with Luciana, yet on the opposite side of the love spectrum, the marriage between Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus is falling apart. What is startling about this play is how vivid and real the relationships seem to be. Adriana emerges as a transcendent, fully fleshed women (from the realm of farce) who laments the loss of her husband’s attention. In the relationship between Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus, Shakespeare paints a portrait of a marriage that seems un-affected by farce or Commedia del’arte, where marital difficulties are all too real and where faithfulness and love will triumph only after it has been severely tested.
Broken families and relationships seem prevalent only for a short time, before the universe re-instates true love and reconciles lost souls. The tensions of love, which seems to have fascinated Shakespeare throughout his career, find there first expressions in The Comedy of Errors, and takes the play beyond a Christianized observance of gender within marriage into a more secularized ‘realist’ world view, where the concerns and frustrations of characters, such as Adriana, seem all too relatable and modern.
The insistent references to water and the sea, provides the play with a powerful metaphor and framework where the characters lose themselves or immerse themselves into a suspended reality in order to plummet the depths of self awareness. Miracles and wonderment, born of the first scene and crystallized by the last, have their genesis in water and we are left with the haunting notion that to emerge as a complete human being we must first dissolve ourselves in the waters of unknowing.
Shakespeare is of course working within the genre of farce and borrows heavily from the traditions and stock characters of Commedia Del’arte. The slapstick comedy, the characters charm and humour, the witty word play, the complex but dizzyingly funny plot construction, all work to make this play a tour de force of comedy. Errors is often seen as a simplistic piece of froth that he wrote for a fun nights entertainment at Gray’s Inn in 1594 (and it probably was) but what Shakespeare transforms a standard piece of farce into a virtuoso display of dramatic control and exuberance. He intertwines so many elements from different comic traditions and so many dramatic devices that the play sings with an originality and humour that is exciting. The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare’s shortest play but as Harold Bloom observes:
‘Exuberant fun as it is and must be, this fierce little play is also one of the starting points for Shakespeare’s reinvention of the human’
This production seeks out a real world, a world where these miracles could conceivably take place and not a world where cartoon representations engulf it. We are in Greece, at Ephesus, a port town and a bay where water and immersion and the foreigner is a reality. Shakespeare himself sets the play in ancient Greece. The coast of Asia Minor had for many years been the location of great trade and a pluralist society but also one of great suspicion, xenophobia and disputed territorial claims. Aegeon’s story seems to resonate when one thinks of the ‘Great Catastrophe of 1922’ when Greeks and Turks were expelled from their traditional lands and these tensions allow for the plays textures and tones.
It has been a tremendous pleasure to work with this cast and I have loved working with such great actors who bring an enormous creative force to the rehearsal room floor. This play requires so many creative answers to many of Shakespeare’s challenges and this cast has thoroughly risen to that challenge.
(No director's note available for this production)
Photography by Takaya Honda
Aaron Tsindos | Dromio of Ephesus
Amy Mathews | Adriana
Anthony Gooley | Antipholus of Ephesus
Belinda Hoare | Amelia
Christopher Stalley | The Sea Officer
Christopher Tomkinson | Duke of Ephesus
Eloise Winestock | Luciana
Francesca Savige | A Courtesan
Gabriel Fancourt | Ensemble
George Banders | Dromio of Syracuse
Keith Agius | Aegeon
Lizzie Schebesta | Ensemble
Megan Drury | Ensemble
Sam Haft | Balthazar
Scott Sheridan | Antipholus of Syracuse
Tyran Parke | Angelo
Yalin Ozucelik | Dr. Pinch - a Conjurer
Lucilla Smith | Designer
Andrea Corish | Stage Manager
Damien Ryan | Artistic Director/Dramaturg
David Stalley | Sound Design / Videography
James Lugton | Business Manager
Jeremy Page | Technical Manager/Operator
Maryellen George | Assistant Stage Manager
Nick Catran | Set Construction
Oliver Burton | Publicity and Venue Liaison
Scott Witt | Fight Director / Movement
Terry Karabelas | Director
Toby Knyvett | Lighting Designer