By Susannah Bradley
Like much of Britain’s youth, I had been put put off Shakespeare in school: learning pages of quotes and analysis did not warm me to the literary legend- in fact, I couldn’t wait to get rid of him.
Before going to see The Comedy of Errors by the Foot of The Hill Theatre Company, I was sceptical. I half-heartedly skimmed the plot on Wikipedia, picked up a programme and took my seat in St Mary’s dining hall, transformed into a theatre for 2 nights only. The Comedy of Errors was Shakespeare’s first performed play about two twin brothers separated at birth who are repeatedly mistaken for each other. I expected many hours of monologues and incomprehensible words.
I was wrong. This production, directed by Sophie Boddington and Sophia Rahim, took us back into the world that Shakespeare created. Even before the play had started, the pinkish-orange light and the playful fiddle music that filled the room was perfectly chosen to capture the air of times gone by.
Then – bang. Into the opening scene of the play – the grief-stricken, shocked Aegeon, played by Imogen Carr, is thrown onto the stage as she is arrested. Carr is emotional, her words and body language expressing her pain.
Although at times the actors spoke too quickly, spilling out their words like they were desperate to get to the end, they soon settled into their roles and became their characters. The two Dromios, played by Matthew Redmond and Auguste Voulton, were particularly entertaining, shouting and whispering and stamping and stumbling all over the stage, bringing an extra comedy. The actors used the space well, filling it with dramatic arms and emotions. Well-rehearsed facial expressions added value to the production, from the longing face of Antipholus of Syracuse (Keir Mulcahey) when courting Luciana (Lily Kattenhorn-Black), to the consistently threatening face of the angry jailor (Emily Cliffe).
The stage was small and the set minimal. A large red door in the first act and two chairs were the only items on stage in the whole production. This minimalistic approach chosen by the production and technical team did not only lessen the opportunity for unwelcome mishaps but allowed the characters to create their own surroundings and take the audience with them.
The actors were truly challenged to become their characters by the minimalist set and costume. All roles were dressed in black and white outfits. Shirt and t-shirt distinguished the Antipholus’s from the Dromios, black and white dresses distinguished Adriana (Naomi Clarke) from Luciana. The directors wrote in the programme the play would “explore human contradictions and internal, as well as external, dichotomies” and this was illustrated through costume. The half black and half white clothing of each character showed that there are two sides to every human and displayed the theme of mistaken identity.
The directors inserted their own subtle comedy into the production. Almost the only colour seen was in the form of a small pink parasol carried by Keir Mulcahey as Antipholus of Syracuse and used to dramatically beat up anyone he got angry with. The use of small umbrellas instead of a sword added comedy to the ‘big swordfight’ at the climax of the play.
In addition, when Tom Porter as Antipholus of Ephesus was shaking the stage with his rage at being locked out of his own house, the Balthazar (Elisa Benham) and Angelo (Vankshita Mishra) sit down to wait. The, in true Shakespearean style, they whip out some popcorn to watch the drama unfold. This subtle humour helped to bring the play into the 21st century and convince that maybe not all Shakespeare plays are as dry as I once thought.
Although the play’s themes may not immediately be apparent, this comedy explores the wide range of human emotions there are. From the pain of losing your family to the joy of love, the bitter gnawing of jealousy to the bubbling of anger, Shakespeare portrays emotions felt by everyone of us at some time in our lives. I was surprised to find this production not only comedic but relatable, and I was pulled into the confusion and emotions of the characters.
Watching the cast, production and technical team inspired me to become more involved in the huge range of drama opportunities there are at Durham. The Comedy of Errors made me realise that I was in error in assuming all Shakespearean plays are boring and incomprehensible. The clever direction and the heartfelt acting showed me that Shakespeare is contemporary and comedic. I would encourage you to go and see it.
Photograph: The Comedy of Errors Production Team