BBC Complete Shakespeare: The Comedy of Errors


I’m often fascinated by the difference that reading VS watching Shakespeare makes in my appreciation of his plays. Some plays that read like supreme masterpieces, like The Tempest, struggle to find a faithful film adaptations that captures that magic. While others that I found utterly forgettable in print, like Titus Andronicus, that have made for fabulous film productions (Julie Taymor’s version, I mean). A The Comedy of Errors was one of a handful of Shakespeare plays I remembered almost nothing about after reading it more than a year ago, and it’s often been considered perhaps Shakespeare’s lightest (in theme, plot, character, substance, etc.) play. Yet, to my great surprise, it’s proven to be one of the finest in BBC’s Complete Shakespeare series, replete with warmth, wit, humor, pristine acting, and a genuine sense of fun from beginning to end.

The play begins with the aged Aegeon (Cyril Cusack) relating how his wife had had identical twin boys named Antipholus (Michael Kitchen), while a servant had had identical twin boys named Dromio (Roger Daltrey). After a tempest, both pairs were separated, along with Aegeon from his wife. Eventually, Aegeon’s son and Dromio went to Ephesus to seek their brothers, and when they didn’t return, Aegeon followed them, and found himself subject to the law that no Syracusan merchant can set foot in Ephesus. So Aegeon is given 24 hours to find someone to pay his ransom or he’ll die. Meanwhile, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus have arrived where Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse reside, and what ensues is a series of mistaken identities, especially when the Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus encounter the wife of Antipholus of Syracuse, Adriana (Suzanne Bertish), and her sister, Luciana (Joanne Pearce).

The reason The Comedy of Errors probably plays so well in such a setting is precisely because it is so superficial and fun. With two pairs of twins, Shakespeare allowed himself enough room for inventive, mind-bending comedy. In fact, even with the play being as “light” as it is, it frequently becomes difficult to remember who is who. But the inevitable confusion this causes in the audience can only produce more laughter because that sense of confusion is echoed by what’s happening on stage. Knowing Shakespeare’s genius for manipulating audience involvement, I wouldn’t put it past him for realizing this; I can almost imagine him writing with an enormous smile on his face, thinking of ways to mess with the audience’s sense of perspective on which Dromio/Antipholus is talking to which Antipholus/Dromio.

As always with Shakespeare, productions sink or swim on the strength of the cast, and the cast is stellar here in my estimation. Michael Kitchen’s Antipholus effortlessly creates a contrast between his two characters, making his Syracusan more stern and frustrated, while his Ephesus counterpart is more light-hearted and bemused. Roger Daltrey may be the surprising highlight of the play, and, for the life of me, I can’t understand the negative criticism that his performance has garnered. It may be true that he’s not an actor of the caliber needed to perform, say, Hamlet, but he’s perfect as the low-born servant with a cockney accent who is mostly tasked with bounding around the stage, joking with his master(s) and lusting after the corpulent female chef. In fact, his speech (as Dromio of Ephesus) to Antipholus about finding all lands in the world in his mistress (reminiscent of Donne’s Elegy XX) may be the highlight of the play (or, at least, this production).

But, if anything, the women outdo the men here. Both are strikingly beautiful, but they also have a superb chemistry together, which is important given their contrasting characters. Bertish’s Adriana is more dynamic, and it’s hilarious to watch her go from the wrath of a woman scorned one moment, to tearful and lamenting the next as she lusts after, pleads for, and repudiates her husband, Antipholus of Syracuse, in subsequent breaths within the same scene. Pearce is given less to do as the chaste and Luciana, but she pulls off those rather archaic, misogynistic, didactic speeches convincingly, while her reacting with shock and horror to the amorous advances of Antipholus of Ephesus (whom she believes to be Antipholus of Syracuse; her sister’s husband) is one of the funniest moments in the production.

While Shakespeare productions may sink or swim with their actors, Shakespeare’s comedies and actors sink or swim with how humorous they manage to be and, thankfully, this production manages to produce some real laughs. While the pervasive slapstick elements (like the Antipholi’s constant beating of the wrong Dromio) only manage to provoke a chuckle at the beginning, it’s really the language and expression of the actors that conjure up the most laughs. Amongst my favorite moments include the horrified reaction when Adriana, Luciana, and a mystic turn around to find Antipholus and Dromio (of Ephesus) after they had just successfully locked the other pair (of Syracuse) up in their house. Bertish’s Adriana probably gets the most laughs from the dialogue, and even here with Shakespeare at his most frivolous she manages to reveal the paradoxical desires of a woman scorned (both wanting the love of her man while wanting to hate him and not need him).

The production itself is amongst the best in the series, with a well-designed town square acting as the center for much of the play, as well as a cozy room that serves as the house of Adriana and Luciana. The sets are quite well colored and well lit, and they appear more spacious than they probably were. Most importantly, the sets manage to echo the nice, light, and inviting tone of the play itself, and it’s hard to ask more out of such a setting. The costuming, like the set, isn’t lavish, but the modesty makes it all the more inviting. Overall, both the sets and costuming aren’t lavish, yet they are perfectly suited to the tone of the play, which is more important than anything else.

The Comedy of Errors certainly isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best plays, and nobody would confuse it with a masterpiece, but it does reveal early Shakespeare as a charming writer of featherweight comedy, more concerned with getting a laugh than digging into the depths of human nature and revolutionizing dramatic form. In fact, this play is one of only two Shakespeare’s (along with The Tempest) to observe the Three Classic Unities, and Shakespeare would return to the premise of mistaken identities even later with the more substantial Twelfth Night. But with that said, this is still one of the better productions in BBC’s Complete Shakespeare series.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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