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BWW Review: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, Barbican

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After their run in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Royal Shakespeare Company has brought their latest hilarious show to the Barbican.

BWW Review: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, Barbican

BWW Review: THE COMEDY OF ERRORS, Barbican

"These jokes are 400 years old, help me out here!" Dromio of Syracuse begs the audience at the Barbican. In truth, he doesn't need help. The whole company don't need any help. Director Phillip Breen succeeds in summoning such a direct and resolute style of comedy in his staging of The Comedy of Errors that it feels like Shakespeare might as well be a contemporary writer of ours. The Royal Shakespeare Company's latest enterprise is a hit, a truly enjoyable, sincerely ha-ha funny production with just a vague dash of pandemic irony.

After being separated from their twins in a shipwreck, Antipholus and his slave Dromio go to Ephesus to find their brothers. Given that it's the Bard, the chances of this being a bona fide disaster couldn't be higher. So, from (very valid) accusations of infidelity, treachery, and a good dose of sexual innuendos, the two sets of twins and the eccentric population of Ephesus make this play the funniest in the Folio according to modern standards.

The series of hilarious misunderstandings is tied up with a ribbon of pure slapstick on Max Jones's low-key grandiose set design where dark marble mixes with gold. Initially due to open in the doomed spring of 2020, it is definitely worth the wait and the pandemic might have even made it better. Antipholus of Syracuse sanitises his hands energetically, leading to one of the best double entendres of the night. As his twin's wife's advances grow more handsy, he handles his little tub more and more nervously, squirting hand sanitiser all over the few front rows at the climax.

The visual gags are relentless, and the show whizzes by unexpectedly with spotless physical comedy, clockwork comedic timing, and steadfast pace. Harmless puns provoke endless fun; "to pay" kick-starts a hilarious vignette with a waiter who's very insecure about his headpiece, a "Shut the **** up!" in British Sign Language is interpreted as "Speak softly", and Doctor Pinch the schoolmaster is a mix between a yoga instructor and a spirit guide who tries to exorcise Antipholus of Ephesus with what looks like rosemary or sage.

Besides the inexorable laughs the company collects, Breen toys with the concept of fragmentation of the self and engages deeper reflections on identity and reality. Antipholus has to deal with being locked out of his own home while everyone accidentally gaslights him and his twin dines with his wife, leading him to the path of madness (and we know Shakespeare loves a mad plot!). The Dromios, instead, are excessively beaten and berated for carrying out the wrong master's order or allegedly losing his possessions.

Guy Lewis and Rowan Polonski are similar enough as the Syracusian and Ephesian respectively to make it easy to believe they're related, and the same goes for Jonathan Broadbent and Greg Haiste as their servants. As confusion in Ephesus builds, the growing disarray of their identical clothes and therefore of the dissimilarities between the two pairs adds to the hilarity of the situation.

The delightfully ridiculous string of events that could have been avoided by a dose of healthy communication finally brings the characters to a place of unity and family and everyone lives happily ever after. We haven't laughed this much at something the RSC has put on in a while. This play is exactly what we need to cope as the days become darker and winter sets in.

The Comedy of Errors runs at the Barbican Centre until 31 December.

Photo credit: Pete Le May


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