by William Shakespeare: Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory, Bristol
Shakespeare’s comedy of long-lost brothers and mistaken identity came from a tradition of the fast-paced Roman classical comedies of Plautus and Terence. Whilst retaining the farcical elements Shakespeare added a darker thread both in the themes of lost family and marriage infidelity and in his poignant language.
The difficulty in beginning this ‘comedy’ is the sombre first scene. Egeon is condemned to death for being in his enemy’s city-state and his long narrative of how he came to be there is crucial to setting up the rest of the play and is essential in drawing in the audience. Unfortunately the new production by the Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory company stumbles at the first pratfall. David Collins’s Egeon relates his perilous shipwreck and wretched loss of his family as though he’d been told tickets to the Cup Final were sold out. The staid opening scene is further compromised by the unnessary naturalistic stage furniture: the Duke sits trapped behind an ornate desk, packed with redundant stationary. Contrary to the Tobacco Factory’s simplicity of space, reminiscent of Shakespeare’s own theatre, these cumbersome props overwhelm the language and story, essential to the rest of the evening.
Similarly, the melancholy opening scene needs an energy to lift spirirts but there was a lack-lustre entrance of the newly-landed Syracusan Antipholus (Dan Winter) and then of his ‘slave’ Dromio (Richard Neale), who edges on stage like a member of the audience creeping back from the toilet.
However, all is not lost. Gradually actors and plot seem to cohere and the energy of Shakepseare’s scene structure pick up the pace as each moment of mistaken identity builds confusion, frustration and tension. The Dromio twins Neale and Gareth Kennerley warm to their roles as the evening evolves; their growing confusion and instant horror at the abuse they receive from their ‘masters’ suitably amusing. Neale especially displays clever comic timing; his disgust and terror of the mysterious fat lady with ideas of marriage is particularly hilarious, discriptions such as “her nose all o’er embellished with rubies and carbuncles” wonderfully related.
The ‘master-servant’ characters come from a long classical and Commedia delle’arte tradition of class hierarchy and physical slapstick. Unfortunately there there was a lack of chemistry between both sets of Antipholus and Dromio. While the Dromios showed more physical commitment as the night went on Dan Winter’s Syracusan Antipholus seemed lost and stiff as the romantic visitor and Matthew Thomas’s native Antipholus was physically awkward. Nevertheless, all actors maintained a sense of bewilderment to earn our sympathy and the touching brotherly reunion in the final scene is wonderfully felt by Winter and Thomas.
There is a stand-out performance of the evening from Dorothea Myer-Bennett as Adriana who brings wonderful depth to the ‘cheated’ wife. Amongst the farcical misunderstanding of her husband’s extra-marital shenanikins Myer-Bennett evokes a poignant sub-text of sorrow and heartbreak. The conflict of expunged suspicions and apparent Courtesan (Kate Kordel) relations is evoked with touching inner dejection.
The hesitant beginning has long been forgotten as the mixture of farcical comedy and dark poignancy is built to a climax and all misunderstandings suitably explained. This is an early Shakespeare play but his dramatic skill, eloquent word-play, and subtle pathos lifts it out of the common run of farcical comedy and director Andrew Hilton’s production gives us an amusing if not hilarious evening.