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Print Version

By William Shakespeare
Directed by Richard Finn
Presented by Whitireia New Zealand's Stage and Screen Arts Programme

at Whitireia Performance Centre, 25-27 Vivian Street, Wellington
From 24 Jun 2014 to 28 Jun 2014
[1hr 30mins, incl. interval]

Reviewed by John Smythe, 25 Jun 2014

In the mirror-ball flecked traverse space, the feel of a 1950s dance hall is well established as we take our seats on either side of the semi-formally frocked cast, foxtrotting to the pleasant tones of Sunny Daze and the Sunbeams. The music and dancing set it at the cusp of ballroom and rock 'n' roll when, in the growing affluence of the post-war 50s, repressive social norms are soon to be challenged. 

With The Comedy of Errors, his first comedy (unless you accept Titus Andronicus was written as a splatter-fest farce), William Shakespeare – in his early twenties – displays a clear understanding of the importance of jeopardy in comedy. Ephesus is a no-go area for Syracusians, due to some inter-Ducal enmity, so when the ageing merchant of Syracuse, Egeon (Tommy Berridge) turns up in search of his long-lost twin sons and the other twins he bought from a poor woman to serve them, the Duke of Ephesus (Johnny T Marshall), in a fit of compassion, gives him just one day to raise 1000 marks to pay a fine in lieu to being put to death for daring to enter Ephesus.   

As Egeon tells his expository backstory, director Richard Finn (also the designer) ensures we get the set-up by using dumb-show to establish the two sets of twins – high and low-born – as babes in arms, their subsequent master-servant pairings and their separations at sea. This also establishes his wife, Emilia (Yasmin de Visser), so that her appearance later as a Lady Abbess of Ephesus and the reunion of husband and wife, boys and brothers, has a pleasing ‘book-end' effect.

Betwixt and between, in this shortest of Shakespeare's plays (just 90 minutes including interval), we are treated to comical scenes of mistaken identity brought about by the arrival of Antipholus of Syracuse (Tane Williams-Accra) and Dromio of Syracuse (Rachel Harrison) in the town which is home to Antipholus of Ephesus (Allen Murrell), who is married to wealthy Adriana (Sasha Delamere); where Dromio of Ephesus (Matthew Savage), finds refuge from the beatings his master and mistress habitually mete out, with the kitchen wench Luce (Kadin Collins).

The Antipholi are in suits, the Dromios are dressed as butlers and Adriana, her sister Luciana (Lucy Barclay) and other women friends – ensconced in a floral-covered lounge suite at one end of the space – are befrocked as if from a 50s fashion catalogue. Except Luce seems to be modelled on Hattie McDaniel's ‘Mammy' from Gone With The Wind. The Courtesan (Melissa Cooper) is in sophisticated black, and a random Prostitute (Justine Suluka Bouchard) is decidedly French. Oh well, Shakespeare had purloined stock comic characters from Plautus so I suppose it is valid to update the clichés accordingly.  

While Ant of Eph puts his marriage at risk by consorting with the Courtesan, having been locked out of his own house while Ant of Syr is enjoying the hospitality within, the downward pressure is further maintained by mix-ups involving a gold necklace and a subsequent chain of debts and sailing deadlines which puts the goldsmith Angelo (Victoria Gillespie) and a couple of Merchants (Adrian Renor and Joel Isaac Hardwick) at serious odds with each other. The law enforcers (led by a Glock-wielding Matthew Sole) seem to be clad in faux leather devoid of either PD branding or gang insignia.

Makuei Awet Aken (from Sudan) makes an impressive top-hatted, tail-coated, bare-chested and white-faced Doctor Pinch, engaged by Adriana to exorcise the demons from Ant of Eph which have clearly made him mad. And to complete the picture of Ephesus, a bar inhabits one corner, tended by Mark N Atkin.  

It all plays out at a good pace with a few bits of excellent comic business lifting it beyond competent. Tane William-Accra is especially impressive as Antipholus of Syracuse, constantly inventing comic business out of an intelligent understanding of the play without ever over-doing it. He and Lucy Barclay's Luciana manifest their growing mutual attraction to compelling effect, and his relationship with Rachel Harrison's comically-crafted Dromio is also well forged.

Having created a quite convoluted plot around who owes what to whom, and where the money gets diverted, Shakespeare is remiss in not clearly scripting the fiscal resolution. I'm happy to see that the fat roll of banknotes does finally get into the right hands nevertheless.

The resolving of all the lost and at-risk relationships is the important thing and while some rather strident declaiming of text impedes the reunion of Emilia and Egeon, my eye is most drawn to the now possible bond between Luciana and Ant of Syr. While the Antipholi are happily reunited, the Dromios are somewhat wary before uniting to deliver the final sight gag.

The promise of “farcical slapstick” is not consistently delivered and the jeopardy and the pressures on emotional relationships could be explored more profoundly. Overall, as a showcase for potentially professional talent emerging from a two-year course, this Comedy of Errors ranges from competent to excellent.
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See also reviews by:
 Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] (The Dominion Post);