On Theatre

Double trouble in chaotic Comedy

Great times to be had in Canterbury despite occasionally clunky comedy and some scandalously overpriced wine

Illustration of Anne Mcelvoy's face

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The arrival of the Christmas season is a reminder that while the West End is the beating heart of British theatre, it is in what used to be called the “provinces” — now more delicately in arts speak the “regions” — that most of the country experiences plays, old and new.

It seemed the right time to settle into the stalls outside the capital and take pot luck on a touring production at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, which has been open ten years, a strong local hub for visiting productions from Glyndebourne to stand up, and a riotous Kent annual panto.

To be a mite less obliging, the Marlowe has, as the architecture critic, Rowan Moore, put it at its inception a decade
ago, “too much of the office block in the detail of the building, not enough of the theatrical”, with a relatively large 1,200 auditorium and a bar that charged me over £7.50 for a small glass of terrible wine. I guess desperate times call for overpriced measures.

The settled core of our lives often feels more like a flimsy construct than reality

On a Wednesday night this can be hard to fill in a place of Canterbury’s size, but the lure of the RSC remains strong and it was decently two thirds full for the touring production of The Comedy of Errors, directed by Phillip Breen. I don’t know many fans of Big Will who would cite it as their favourite. But, written when he was at the end of his twenties, it is foundational to a lot of what comes after — and not only Shakespeare’s rib ticklers.

Egeon is a merchant, father to twin boys called Antipholus, separated in a shipwreck, each with a klutzy servant called Dromio. This is, after all, the work of a still green writer, albeit with a mind spinning through plots, images and contrivances which ransack the ancient world in channelling the dilemma of an illicit sexual attraction. Antipholus of Syracuse (Guy Lewis) is entertained by his brother’s wife and woos her sister, and acquires a gold chain (here a knock off Primark bling number) by mistake. All is finally sorted out in the black humour of the intended execution of Egeon for debts he didn’t ring up. If you’re still with me and don’t know the ending, think of the reveal of Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest — and you get the idea.

Nicholas Prasad, Rowan Polonski and William Grint in The Comedy of Errors

In truth, the exhausting nature of the humour and quips on doubleness are hard yards for the main cast to shine beyond being mere stage puppets of Shakespeare’s giddy imagination. However, Guy Lewis and Rowan Polonski as the two separated Antipholi, and Jonathan Broadbent and Greg Haiste as the (remarkably similar) Dromios manage to keep things distinctive enough to draw laughs out of the confusion without us sinking too deep into muddle.

The Comedy, as the Shakespeare scholar Jonathan Bate describes it in the programme, is deeper than it appears. The word “mad” appears more often than in Hamlet or King Lear and beyond the madcap misunderstandings lie the kind of terrifying questions which fascinated the great (and, in the Anglosphere, neglected) German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist: what happens if the “fragile construction of the world” (Kleist’s famous phrase) buckles and breaks, leaving us only chaos and uncertainty and everything from love to justice turns out to be random?

The women who fear betrayal and the men at the mercy of the fates in the Comedy are by turns, elated, depressed, bewildered and self deluding — traits which recur in the tragedies and history plays and endure into our own chaotic times, when all that seems solid can melt and the settled core of our lives often feels more like a flimsy construct than reality.

The Comedy, chaos and all, still sparkles on the touring stage

In terms of the staging, a merry muddle of duologues re set as yoga sessions and the inevitable sword fights conducted with the seconds bringing on a kitchen knife block in an unwieldy polystyrene case, Breen and designer Max Jones have decided to go all in on the stagey jollity.

The concepts come a bit too thick and fast — at one point a television crew follows the action, I supposed to imply that we too live in a society of voyeuristic interest in other people’s messes. But it feels as if the RSC has thrown everything at a play conceived to be performed in a specially constructed outdoors theatre for audiences hungering for all the extremes of Shakespeare comedy in one go.

Inside, the attempt to replicate this by leaving the auditorium lights on can feel contrived and the costumes are on the crazier side of fantastical. If you’ve caught Upstart Crow, Ben Elton’s BBC satire which casts David Mitchell as a grumph Shakespeare, regularly upbraided by his wife for recycling his plotlines about tempests, twins and wild coincidences, you’ll have some idea of the Comedy’s strengths and foibles.

At one point during a laborious jokey metaphor, the fourth wall is duly smashed and the audience told off for groaning at the creakiness: “What do you want/ These jokes are four hundred years old.” The old comedian’s retort “Well they were new at the time,” springs to mind.

The Comedy, chaos and all, still sparkles on the touring stage. Doubles all round, even at the Marlowe’s bar prices.

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