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The Comedy of Errors

by William Shakespeare

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Believed to be one of Shakespeare's earliest plays, The Comedy of Errors is regarded by many critics as an apprentice piece, derivative of the works of the Roman playwright Plautus and possessing a wildly improbable plot involving two sets of identical twins. Despite such perceived shortcomings, The Comedy of Errors has proven to be good theater, with its elements of farce and numerous opportunities for elaborate slapstick routines and musical embellishments being consistently popular with audiences. Many of the more successful productions of the play have been performed in the spirit of the commedia dell'arte, a form of early Italian low comedy that features stylized costumes, stock characters, improvisation, and farce. Although it is uncertain whether The Comedy of Errors was played in this manner during Shakespeare's time, most commentators agree that it is an appropriate format for the work.

The earliest evidence of a performance of The Comedy of Errors is found in the Gesta Grayorum of 1688, the records of Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court, which trained young men for the law. During the Christmas season of 1594, the students held nightly revels that included dancing, banquets, masques, and plays. On Innocents' Day 1594, a performance, described as a "Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus)," was given in the main hall by a company of actors. Theater historians long assumed that the performance was by Shakespeare's acting troupe, THE LORD CHAMBERLAIN'S MEN, but modern commentators have suggested that another professional company or even student players may have enacted the comedy. Although the hall at Gray's Inn in which the revels were held still exists, the nature of the staging and performance is also the subject of scholarly debate. Margaret Knapp and Michal Kobialka have suggested that the stage was wide and shallow and positioned in front of a screen, through which entrances and exits could have taken place. T.S. Dorsch, however, has argued that the staging likely took advantage of the hall's geography and utilized a series of doors at one end of the room. All agree that the hall was rowdy and very crowded the night of the performance; the Gesta indicates that a "Tumult" broke out, resulting in much disorder and the cancellation of a previously scheduled entertainment by members of the Inn. In such conditions, the actors in The Comedy of Errors would have had very little open space to work in, and, as Knapp and Kobialka pointed out, they would have had to have been exceedingly adaptable and flexible in their approach to staging.

The comedy was presented again on Innocents' Day 1604 as part of the Christmas festivities at Court, but seems to have received no further performances in the seventeenth century. Shakespeare's text was subjected to considerable modification and revision during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The first of several adaptations, the farceEvery Body Mistaken, appeared in 1716. Another, See if You Like It, or 'Tis All a Mistake, was first mounted in 1734 and was revived numerous times over the next eighty years at both COVENT GARDEN and DRURY LANE. Thomas Hull's The Twins of 1762 featured added scenes and songs which were intended to strengthen characterizations and add substance to the final recognition scene in Act V. Stage historian George C. D. Odell felt the changes improved the play's rather mechanical plot. "I believe an audience would get more enjoyment from Hull's … Comedy of Errors than from Shakespeare's," he declared. In 1808, the noted actor and theatrical manager J.P. Kemble presented a version of the play that...

(This entire section contains 2621 words.)

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was a further modification of Hull's adaptation. Scholars concur that the aim of all these revisions was to emphasize the elements of farce and sentiment and to reduce the wordplay and the improbability of the plot. In Frederick Reynolds' 1819 production at Covent GardenThe Comedy of Errors was transformed into an opera. Songs were culled from lyrical passages in Shakespeare's other plays and his sonnets. Although many critics regarded this plundering of the canon with contempt, Reynolds' production was a great popular success and was frequently revived. Samuel Phelps restored Shakespeare's text for his production at Sadler's Wells Theatre in 1855 and 1856. As part of the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations in 1864, The Comedy of Errors was presented at the Princess' Theatre and elsewhere with the brothers Charles and Henry Webb as nearly identical Dromios. The almost complete text was performed without scene breaks.

There was a smattering of productions of The Comedy of Errors in the early part of the twentieth century, including F.R. Benson's offering at the Coronet Theatre, two stagings at the OLD VIC (1915 and 1927), and an open-air performance in Regent's Park in 1934. Four years later, Theodore Komisarjevsky mounted a brilliant production at Stratford-upon-Avon that has been considered one of the most influential of this century. Emphasizing music, ballet, and farce, Komisarjevsky provided a Comedy of Errors that was fast-paced and colorfully decorated. The costumes were an eclectic jumble of styles and historical periods; many of the male characters wore bowler hats in a variety of hues. The Times critic was enthusiastic: "The display of colour, though extremely various, is always delightful, and the unfailing inventiveness making every movement amusingly and decoratively significant keeps the stage brilliantly and continuously alive."

Modification and adaptation of The Comedy of Errors continued throughout the middle part of the century. In 1938, the same year as Komisarjevsky's production, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart transformed the play into an American musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse, which was later made into a film. Two years later, London's Mercury Theatre presented A New Comedy of Errorsor Too Many Twins, an amalgamation of Shakespeare, Plautus, and Molière. Since then, it has been cast as a Victorian musical comedy, set in the Near East, reformed as an operetta, and turned into a musical with a New Orleans setting. Walter Hudd's 1957 production at the Old Vic Theatre was staged on a double bill along with the tragedy Titus Andronicus. A single company of actors performed both plays in a single setting, in the manner of a troupe of Elizabethan players. The Times reviewer considered the juxtaposition of a "grim Roman play" and a "slender comedy" ill-conceived. Roger Wood and Mary Clarke, however, felt that the two early plays were unexpectedly compatible. Most critics agreed that Robert Helpmann's energetic slapstick routine as Doctor Pinch was the highlight of the evening. Said Wood and Clarke, "The audience by the time of his exit was limp with laughter."

Called "a milestone in post-war theatrical history," by Michael Billington, Clifford Williams' 1962 ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY production was one of the most successful modern stagings of The Comedy of Errors. Hurriedly assembled to fill a void caused by a postponed rendering of King Lear, this production enjoyed a surprisingly warm reception during the Stratford season and was revived for a world tour and several presentations at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre between 1963 and 1972. At a time when many productions of Shakespeare were characterized by drastic experimentation, Williams chose to direct The Comedy of Errors in a largely straightforward manner, an approach most critics found refreshing and unpretentious. Simplicity and a sense of improvisation were central operating principles behind both the set and the acting. The stage consisted of three sloping platforms furnished only with several benches that were put to various uses. The play opened with a masque-like dance in which the actors, dressed in drab rehearsal clothes, slipped into the brightly colored hats, gowns, and costumes they would use in the performance. This emphasis on self-conscious theatricality was further achieved by the cast's acknowledgment of the audience throughout the performance. Williams's production also stressed farce and fun, from its commedia dell'arte touches to its playing of passages of archaic verse for laughs. The bewildering exchange between Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio in Act II, scene ii was treated in the manner of a Victorian music hall. Complex scenes, such as those at Antipholus of Ephesus' door in Act III, were realized in part through pantomime. One of the many memorable sight-gags was the "exorcism" of Antipholus of Ephesus by Doctor Pinch, whose attempts at chasing away evil spirits were punctuated with a generous supply of firecrackers.

Douglas Seale's 1963 production at the AMERICAN SHAKESPEARE THEATRE, Stratford, Connecticut, was praised for its imagination and light-hearted tone. The director's most conspicuous innovation was his decision to have one actor play both Antipholus twins, and one play both Dromios. Alan Pryce-Jones remarked that this doubling lent a degree of realism to the rather fantastic plot of mistaken identities. The final scene, in which both sets of twins appear on stage, was managed by cutting several lines and introducing two new actors to act as silent doubles. As Clifford Williams had done the previous year, Seale incorporated the traditions of the commedia dell'arte into this staging of The Comedy of Errors. Periodically, a troupe of half-masked commedia players would appear onstage, mirroring the plot of the play in pantomime. Some reviewers found this approach distracting and ultimately tangential to the performance. "As the evening progressed," Dunbar H. Ogden observed, "one began to wonder just what these figures had to do with the play." The set, designed by Will Steven Armstrong, was strongly reminiscent of a sunny Mediterranean seaside town, and a colorful mosaic decorated the floor. Twelve years later Robin Phillips chose a very different locale for his staging. He set his 1975 STRATFORD FESTIVAL production of The Comedy of Errors in the Old West, although he remained faithful to Shakespeare's text in most other respects. The Duke was cast as a wealthy rancher, the Dromios were cowboys, Aemilia toted a shotgun, and the Antipholus twins were—as John Pettigrew characterized them—Mississippi riverboat gamblers. Dominating the center of the stage was a large Conestoga wagon. For Berners W. Jackson, it was an image rich in layers of association. "The wagon was everything," he stated, "and no one thing: perhaps a symbol of migration, whether over seas or prairies, and final settlement; perhaps simply a center as versatile as the country store." In general, critics looked favorably upon Phillips' unusual thematic setting. Clive Barnes felt the combination of Western locale and Elizabethan language served to emphasize the themes of bewilderment and estrangement that are the essence of Shakespeare's play. "Weird," he mused; "It is a Ray Bradbury science-fiction novel." The performances were noted for their energy and execution. Barry MacGregor as Antipholus of Ephesus was singled out for his well-timed slapstick routines.

The play once again received a large infusion of music in Trevor Nunn's 1976 production. Nunn's The Comedy of Errors with the RSC was acclaimed by many critics for its originality, lavish ornamentation and strong, spirited cast. Musical numbers, composed by Guy Woolfenden with lyrics by Nunn, were organized around turning points in the plot and memorable lines, such as Luciana's "A man is master of his liberty" (II. i. 7). Said Irving Wardle of the score, "It does not give you much to hum on the way out, but it supplies a springboard into dramatic song and dance." Roger Warren complained, however, that musical comedy and Elizabethan farce were incompatible, and he argued that "the sung ensembles tended to merge everyone into puppets, and to blunt personality." The production was universally described by commentators as stylish, colorful, and rich in comic detail. The market at Ephesus was presented as a modern day tourist trap, replete with novelty shops and vendors hawking straw hats, postcards, souvenirs, and T-shirts sporting the name "Ephesus." Minor roles were played as caricatures: the Duke was a Greek generalissimo, while the goldsmith, Angelo's creditor, represented a 1930's American gangster. Noted Wardle, "All this represents no particular time or place, but it is certainly the domain of comedy." Comic routines were characterized by slapstick, set pieces, and circus gags.

This circus atmosphere carried over into two 1983 productions. Adrian Noble's RSC The Comedy of Errors, his first staging of a fully comedic work, received widely contrasting reviews. Robert Cushman called the attempt "catastrophic" and complained bitterly about Noble's loose treatment of the text and emphasis on physical humor. On the other hand, James Fenton praised the playing, calling it "some of the best verse-speaking we have had at Strat-ford in recent years." The set was minimal, comprising a white semi-circular shell with black surround, two chairs, and a pit which, while housing the five-piece orchestra, also served as both obstacle and resting place for the actors. The music, written by Nigel Hess, was a potpourri of jazz, ragtime, operetta, and circus music. The costumes by Ultz were noted for their bold color and style—the Dromios were presented as Emmett Kelly-style clowns, the Antipholi with bright blue faces, the Courtezan as "Mistress Satan in the flesh," and Luciana as a pink, ruffled clown with a hairdo that was described as everything from a large icecream cone to a gigantic phallus. A production in which the entire text was either cut, altered, or subverted, Robert Woodruff 's Comedy of Errors at Chicago's Goodman Theatre in the same year was more notable for the acrobatic skills of its performers than for its presentation of the work. Turning Ephesus into a circus in which one needed to be able to tell jokes and juggle simply to survive, Woodruff recruited comic performance artists The Flying Karamazov Brothers (as the two sets of twins and the added role of Shakespeare himself) and professional clown Avner the Eccentric (as Dr. Pinch in an extended form) to skillfully create an authentic vaudeville production. Even the programme was designed to provoke mirth: on the cover, the title was given as Shakespeare's The Three Sisters, which was crossed out and replaced with the correct designation; inside, readers were informed that "the plot has something to do with twins and juggling." Critics complained that not only was the original text lost amidst the frenzied atmosphere, but there was also a "remorselessness" about the irreverence toward the original work. Woodruff defended his interpretation, claiming the production was "in the spirit in which [The Comedy of Errors] was born." The set, by David Gropman, was minimal, giving maximum space to the circus performers. Susan Hilferty's costumes consisted of various colors, shapes, and textures, the most notable being that of Alec Willows (as both Angelo and the Second Merchant), which was literally split down the middle—one side as Harlequin, the other as leather-clad punk. Critics censured the acting generally, but reserved modest praise for Sam Williams as a competent Dromio of Syracuse; similarly, Sophie Schwab's Adriana was seen as the best synthesis of Shakespeare and circus.

A production that was criticized for putting style before substance, Ian Judge's 1990 RSC presentation of The Comedy of Errors was a visually stunning, surreal presentation of the work. The set, designed by Mark Thompson and described by John Peter as "an amazing technicolor dream town," featured a black and white chessboard floor, white walls punctuated by nine brightly colored doors, numerous objects hanging from the ceiling, and a reproduction of Salvador Dalí's couch based on the lips of Mae West. The surrealist theme was additionally emphasized by Dr. Pinch appearing as Dalí himself. The production was also notable for its use of single actors as both sets of twins (Desmond Barrit as the Antipholi and Graham Turner as the Dromios) and for the innovative characterization of the former as fat, unattractive, and coarse, and the latter as refined sophisticates. Nigel Hess's music was praised as clever by most but criticized by John Simon as "something like a laugh track run amok." Performances by Cherry Morris as Aemilia and Estelle Kohler as Adriana were singled out for praise, and the cast was generally considered adequate for the presentation of stereotypical characters.

Reviews And Retrospective Accounts Of Selected Productions

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Gray's Inn 1594


The earliest evidence of a performance of The Comedy of Errors is found in the Gesta Grayorum, the records of Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of Court in London which trained young men for the law. According to the Gesta, the students of Gray's Inn held nightly revels during the Christmas season of 1594; the festivities included banquets, dancing, masques, and plays. On Innocents' Day (28 December), a performance of a play, described as a "Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus)," was given in the main hall by a company of actors. Theater historians have long assumed that the performance was by Shakespeare's acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, though this is open to dispute. Modern commentators have suggested that another professional company or even student players may have enacted the comedy. Although the hall at Gray's Inn, in which the play was acted, still exists, the nature of the staging and performance is also the subject of scholarly speculation and debate. Margaret Knapp and Michal Kobialka have suggested that the stage was wide and shallow and positioned in front of a screen, through which entrances and exits could have taken place. T. S. Dorsch, however, has argued that the staging likely took advantage of the hall's geography and utilized a series of doors at one end. All agree that the hall was rowdy and very crowded the night of the performance; the Gesta indicates that a "Tumult" broke out, resulting in much disorder and the cancellation of a previously scheduled entertainment by members of the Inn. In such conditions, the actors in The Comedy of Errors would have had very little open space with to work in, and, as Knapp and Kobialka pointed out, they would have had to have been exceedingly adaptable and flexible in their approach to staging.


Gray's Inn Records (essay date 1594)

SOURCE: An entry from "Gray's Inn Record" of 28 December 1594, in Shakespeare and His Critics by F. E. Halliday, Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1949, p. 351.

[The following excerpt, originally written in 1594, but not published until 1688, is taken from the records of Gray's Inn, one of the four Inns of the Court designed to train young men for the law. It provides the first known allusion to a performance of The Comedy of Errors.]

The next grand Night was intended to be upon InnocentsDay at Night.… The Ambassador [of the Inner Temple] came…about Nine of the Clock at Night…there arose such a disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage, that there was no Opportunity to effect that which was intended.… The Lord Ambassador and his Train thought that they were not so kindly entertained as was before expected, and thereupon would not stay any longer at that time, but, in a sort, discontented and displeased. After their Departure the Throngs and Tumults did somewhat cease, although so much of them continued, as was able to disorder and confound any good Inventions whatsoever. In regard whereof, as also for that the Sports intended were especially for the gracing of the Templerians, it was thought good not to offer any thing of Account, saving Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen; and after such Sports, a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players. So that Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever afterwards called, The Night of Errors.… We preferred Judgments… against a Sorcerer or Conjuror that was supposed to be the Cause of that confused Inconvenience.… And Lastly, that he had foisted a Company of base and common Fellows, to make up our Disorders with a Play of Errors and Confusions; and that that Night had gained to us Discredit, and itself a Nickname of Errors.

Margaret Knapp and Michal Kobialka (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and the Prince of Purpoole: The 1594 Production of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn Hall" in Theatre History Studies, Vol. 4, 1984, pp. 71-8.

[In the following essay, Knapp and Kobialka attempt to reconstruct the staging of the 1594 production at Gray's Inn Hall.]

An investigation of the scholarship concerning the production of Shakespeare's plays at the Globe Theatre reveals that in recent years there seems to have been something of a cease-fire among theatre historians, perhaps a tacit admission that in the absence of additional evidence about inner stages, discovery scenes, etc., further speculations about staging are useless. One result of this cease-fire has been that historians have turned their attention to the search for evidence concerning other Elizabethan and Jacobean public, private, and court theatres. Surprisingly, there has been little recent investigation of a group of buildings closely connected with, and often converted to, Elizabethan theatres—the Inns of Court. The neglect of the Inns in relation to theatre is all the more startling when one considers that there is evidence that at least two, and possibly as many as six, of Shakespeare's plays were performed in the great halls of the Inns of Court during his lifetime.

Previous scholarship about the staging of plays at the Inns has assumed that performances there were analogous to performances in the great halls of Tudor homes, palaces, and universities. According to this view, a temporary stage would be placed across one end of a hall, in front of the hall screen. The two doors in the screen would serve as convenient entrances and exits for the actors, and the musicians' gallery, an amenity often built into the upper part of a screen, would be used for scenes requiring an upper level. As sensible as this hypothetical arrangement may seem to the modern theatre scholar or practitioner, it does not take into account the variety of theatrical entertainments offered in halls, nor does it acknowledge the tendency of the Elizabethan period to value tradition, symbolism, and diplomacy over convenience and logic. A careful examination of the conditions under which The Comedy of Errors was performed at Gray's Inn hall in 1594 reveals that the physical arrangement of the hall and the nature of the entire Christmas Revel celebration dictated a method of staging that differed markedly from presently accepted ideas about the performances of plays in great halls.

The Inns of Court were, and still are, the major law schools of England. Begun in the Middle Ages, they were by the Elizabethan period substantial organizations occupying numerous buildings in central London. The four main Inns of Court were Middle Temple, Lincoln's Inn, Inner Temple, and Gray's Inn. There were also several less important schools called the Inns of Chancery. The Inns were far more than law schools in the modern sense. Their students were largely limited to the sons of important and influential families. Most had completed a university education at Oxford or Cambridge. The curriculum at the Inns was flexible, largely voluntary, and covered a wide variety of subjects in the arts and humanities as well as law. The ultimate purpose of the Inns was to develop future statesmen, justices, and scholars, and therefore the students' time was taken up not only with the study of legal subjects, but also with the development of such courtiers' skills as dancing, fencing, writing poetry, and acting in plays and masques.

In Elizabeth's time the Inns were major contributors to the development of literature and drama. One has only to note that the Inns of Court produced the first English tragedy (Gorboduc), possibly the first English adaptation of a Greek tragedy (Jocasta), the first English prose comedy (The Supposes), the oldest extant English play based on an Italian novella (Gismonde of Solerne), and the first play to use the Arthurian legend for its subject matter (The Misfortunes of Arthur), to understand the central role that the Inns played in the development of Elizabethan drama. The Inns also presented many masques, some written by their own members and others by professional playwrights. The Inns are credited with the production of the most spectacular and most expensive masque of the pre- Commonwealth period, James Shirley's The Triumph of Peace, which cost an estimated £21,000-24,000 to produce. In addition to their own involvement in theatrical productions, the Inns sponsored many other events such as feasts and disguisings, and would often hire a professional acting company to give a play as part of the entertainment. One such occasion was the performance of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn Hall in 1594.

In reconstructing a performance of a Shakespearean play during the Elizabethan period, scholars generally search for three kinds of evidence: the playscript, the theatre space in which the play was performed, and eyewitness accounts, both written and pictorial. Each of these forms has its advantages and disadvantages. A playscript's value as evidence for a particular performance of a play is often questionable, since theatre companies constantly revised their promptscripts to adapt to such changed conditions as a new theatre, a new actor, or the need for touring. The Comedy of Errors first appeared in print in the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, published almost thirty years after its performance at Gray's Inn. In the intervening time, it was performed at Court, and perhaps also at Burbage's Theatre, the First and Second Globes, Blackfriars, and on tour. Therefore, the stage directions and indications in the dialogue of scenery, entrances and exits, and stage business may reflect the practices at any or all of the theatrical venues in which the play was presented. For this reason, the play itself is an unreliable guide to its staging at Gray's Inn.

With the second type of evidence, the theatre space, we are on firmer ground. Gray's Inn hall still exists, and although it has been renovated from time to time, the basic dimensions of the hall remain the same. Moreover, through a variety of sources it is possible to reconstruct its configuration in Elizabethan days. There is no evidence for the year in which the hall was first erected, but Gentlemen's Magazine [No. 96 (1826)] states that it had been built in the reign of Queen Mary and, until the repairs in 1826, was almost a perfect specimen of the architecture of the Tudor period. The seventeenth-century historian William Dug-dale, quoting from records of the Society of Gray's Inn which are no longer extant, asserts that in 1551 "the old hall was seiled with 54 yards of wainscot at 2 s. a yard, and in 3 and 4 Philip and Mary (1556) the Society began the re-edifying it" [Origines Juridicales, 1671]. The hall itself is seventy feet in length, thirty-four feet, eight inches wide, and forty-seven feet high. On its southern side, above the wainscoted walls, there are five mullioned and transomed windows. On the opposite, northern side, are four similar windows and a big Tudor-style bay window which sheds light onto the dais, located in the western part, or high end, of the hall. At the low end of the hall, that is, the eastern side, there is the music gallery, which was erected between 1555 and 1560, below which there is a hall screen with two openings serving as entrances to the hall. At the high end of the hall on the dais, or half-pace (elevated some six inches from the floor), the high table is located. In front of it, on the floor, there was in former times a table for the Ancients, those seniormembers of the Inn who "could not conveniently have place at the upper table," [The Pension Book of Gray's Inn, 5 February 1593]. A few feet away from the Ancients' Table was a fireplace, also referred to as the andirons, which was in the lateral center of the floor, but longitudinally closer to the upper end of the hall than to the lower end, being directly under the smoke louvre in the roof above. Near the fireplace there stood a cupboard called in the Latin entries the Abacus. The rest of the space in the hall was taken by students' tables which were placed parallel to the side walls in such a way that "no fellow of the Society [would] stand with his back to the fire," [Dugdale]. A manuscript of 1586 preserved among the Burghley papers states that Gray's Inn was the most prosperous of all the Inns of Court. The number of students attending there and dining in the hall was 336 during the term and around 229 during the vacation period. These figures give some indication of the capacity of the hall and the possible size of the festivities which were held there during the Christmas Revels of 1594/5.

The third form of evidence for the performance of a play in Shakespeare's time, the eyewitness account, is often a mixed blessing in Elizabethan studies, for the recollections of foreign travelers and the second-hand drawings with Latin tags often give rise to more problems than they solve. In the case of the 1594 performance of The Comedy of Errors, however, there exists a unique eyewitness account, a description of the entire Christmas Revel festivities at Gray's Inn in 1594/5. This document, called the Gesta Grayorum, was published anonymously in 1688, but despite its late date it is clearly an account written by someone who had taken part in the 1594 festivities. The paragraph of the Gesta directly relating to The Comedy of Errors has been quoted in many places, but to date no one has published an analysis of the many other references in the Gesta that relate to the conditions under which theatrical entertainments were given at Gray's Inn.…

The Christmas Revels, a tradition of the Inns dating from the medieval Feast of Fools and the Lord of Misrule, was a period running from 20 December (the Eve of the Feast of St. Thomas) to Shrovetide (the day before Ash Wednesday) during which the students organized a series of events for their own entertainment. The Inns elected one of their number to preside over the festivities; at Gray's Inn this ruler was known as the Prince of Purpoole, a corruption of Portpool, the parish in which Gray's Inn was located. The extent of the festivities held during the Christmas Revels varied from Inn to Inn and from year to year, but at certain times one of the Inns would plan its revels on a grand scale. The author of the Gesta maintains that the elaborate revels at Gray's Inn during the Christmas vacation of 1594/5 resulted from a combination of an exceptionally large number of students remaining in residence at the Inn during the vacation, and the fact that revels had been cancelled in the previous three or four years because of the plague.

It is clear from several references in the Gesta Grayorum that alterations were made in the hall for the Christmas festivities. For example, on 29 December charges were leveled against the supposed perpetrator of the previous evening's disorders. Among the charges was: "How he had caused the Stage to be built, and Scaffolds to be reared to the top of the House, to increase Expectation." Clearly, all the tables must have been taken away and the stage and scaffolds put into place at an early date, their presence no doubt adding to a sense of anticipation. The scaffolds were considered essential to the Christmas festivities, for when the Prince of Purpoole was due to return from Russia on 28 January the students planned "two grand Nights" which had to be cancelled "for Want of Room in the Hall, the Scaffolds being taken away, and forbidden to be built up again (as would have been necessary for the good Discharge of such a Matter)."

The scaffolds seem to have provided temporary seating for both the members of Gray's Inn who were not directly participating in the Revel, and for outside guests. They were probably located at the sides of the hall, leaving the space in the center of the floor for dancing and other uses. At least this was the practice at the Inner Temple, where, for the Banqueting Night during the Christmas Celebrations, "The hall is to be furnished with Scaffolds to sit on, for the ladies to behold the Sports, on each side" [Dugdale].

Before discussing the location of the stage it is necessary to clarify the nature and use of the dais. According to the Gesta Grayorum, on 20 December the Prince of Purpoole marched from his lodgings in the hall in the company of his train of followers, about 112 people excluding trumpeters, "townsmen in liveries," the family, and followers. The Prince took his place on his throne under a rich cloth of state at the high end of the hall, that is, on the dais. "His Counsellors and great Lords were placed about him, and before him; below the Half-pace, at a Table, sate his learned Council and Lawyers; the rest of the Officers and Attendants took their proper Places, as belonged to their condition." Thus, it is possible to estimate that on the dais, in the space of about fourteen feet by thirty-four feet, there were approximately seventy people, with additional people seated at the table below the dais.

The area in the middle of the hall, that is, bounded on the north and south by scaffolds, on the east by the hall screen, and on the west by the fireplace, was probably left open, since there had to be room there for at least thirty couples to dance, and since on 20 December the Prince's Champion rode into the hall on horseback and rode around the fireplace before issuing his challenge.

The evening of 28 December (Innocents' Night) is of central significance to this discussion. Because the earlier Revels had been so successful, the author of the Gesta claims that "the common Report amongst all Strangers was so great, and the Expectation of our Proceedings so extraordinary, that it urged us to take upon a greater State than that was at the first intended: And therefore, besides all the stately and sumptuous Service that was continually done the Prince, in very Princely manner; and besides the daily revels, and such like Sports, which were usual, there was intended divers grand Nights, for the Entertainment of Strangers to our Passtimes and Sports.

As a result, on Innocents' Night there was an unexpected influx of guests, "Lords, Ladies, and worshipful Person-ages, that did expect some notable Performance at that time; which, indeed, had been effected, if the multitude of Beholders had not been so exceedingly great, that thereby there was no convenient room for those that were Actors." The term actors here seems to refer to members of Gray's Inn who had prepared an entertainment, possibly a masque, for the Prince and his special guests, the Ambassador from the Inner Temple and his train of followers. After entering the hall, the Ambassador exchanged speeches of greeting with the Prince, and then was also seated on the dais with his train. By now, the crowd must have been immense and unruly, for

there arose such a disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage, that there was no Opportunity to effect that which was intended: There came so great a number of worshipful Person-ages upon the Stage, that might not be displaced; and Gentlewomen, whose Sex did privilege them from Violence, that when the Prince and his Officers had in vain, a good while, expected and endeavoured a Reformation, at length there was no hope of Redress for that present. The Lord Ambassador and his Train thought that they were not so kindly entertained, as was before expected, and thereupon would not stay any longer at that time, but in a sort, discontented and dis-pleased. After their Departure the Throngs and Tumults did somewhat cease, although so much of them continued, as was able to disorder and confound any good Inventions whatsoever. In regard whereof, as also for that the Sports intended were especially for the gracing of the Templarians, it was thought good not to offer any thing of Account, saving Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen; and after such Sports, a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players. So that night had begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever afterwards called, The Night of Errors.

One can imagine from this description a crowd of important people (the so-called "worshipful personages") pushing onto the dais, and when there is no more room there because of the Prince, his train, the Ambassador, his train, and the many outside guests, the overflow seems to have spilled onto the stage, thereby obstructing the performance planned by the members of the Inn.

Where was this stage and why were so many "worshipful personages" trying to sit on it? If it were in front of the hall screen, as it is usually conjectured to be, it would be at the opposite end of the hall from the Prince, and therefore not very tempting as a seat for important guests. Nor could the stage be in the middle of the floor below the fire-place, for it would restrict the dancing and make the Champion's entrance on horseback impossible.

The stage must have been located in front of the dais, in the space between the dais and the fireplace. Further evidence for this location comes from the Gesta Grayorum's account of the events of 3 January. After the masque, the knightings, and the running banquet, "there was a table set in the midst of the Stage, before the Prince's Seat; and there sate six of the Lords of his Privy Council." We know that the Prince's seat was located on the dais, and that the Privy Council had previously sat at the table below, that is, in front of, the dais. Moreover, given the length and literary sophistication of the six councillors' speeches (reportedly written by Francis Bacon), the speakers must have been in close proximity to the Prince. Therefore, the phrase "in the midst of the stage, before the Prince's seat" must refer to a stage that was directly in front of the dais, in the space between the dais and the fireplace. This area could be about nine feet deep and as wide as the hall, that is, thirty-four feet, eight inches.

How could this area function as a stage for the performance of The Comedy of Errors? Obviously, the stage is wide and shallow, with the audience seated on at least two, and possibly all four, sides. Entrances and exits could have been made through the door at the back of the dais, or through the open space in front of the stage, which led back to the doorways in the hall screen. Such entrances and exits through the hall would have brought the audience seated in the scaffolds into the action of the play. If scenery were employed at all, it could have taken the form of booth-like medieval mansions set up in front of the walls on either side of the stage. In short, if this is the stage on which The Comedy of Errors was given, the performance would have differed greatly from one in a public theatre with its deep thrust stage backed by a tiring-house facade.

Two other pieces of evidence should be mentioned in relation to the location of theatrical performances at the Inns of Court. A description of a feast held in 1577 at the Middle Temple asserts that "at the high end of the hall, which is somewhat raised, both to signify the exalted status of the Benchers and for the convenience of play actors, are seated the members of the Privy Council and the peerage" [quoted in George Godwin, The Middle Temple, 1964]. In this case, it seems as if the dais itself were used for the staging of plays.

The other piece of evidence comes from the Gesta Grayorum. It is a description of The Masque of Amity, performed on 3 January as an apology to the Ambassador from the Inner Temple for the disorders and tumults of Innocents' Night. In the course of his account, the author of the Gesta states that "at the side of the Hall, behind a Curtain, was erected an Altar to the Goddess of Amity." He then proceeds to describe the action of the masque, all of which takes place around the altar (the curtains were opened at the beginning and closed at the end). Where was the curtained altar at the side of the hall? It could have been in the bay window, which could easily have been curtained off, or it could have been a makeshift arrangement on one of the scaffolds. In either case, the reference to "the side of the hall" suggests still another location for theatrical performances at the Inns of Court.

To summarize, an examination of the Gesta Grayorum and related evidence leads to the following conclusions: first, the performance of The Comedy of Errors was only one event in a lengthy and complex Christmas Revel celebration. Second, since the stage and scaffolds were erected for a variety of uses during the Revels, the professional players would have been forced to adapt their performance of The Comedy of Errors to existing conditions, that is, to a stage erected directly in front of the dais. Third, since additional evidence documents instances when either the dais itself or the side of the hall was used for a theatrical performance at the Inns of Court, there could not have been a single, universally used method for staging plays at the Inns. In light of these points, it would seem that the assumption of a typical or composite method for reconstructing the staging of plays in Tudor halls may be a dangerous generalization. Adaptability and flexibility, rather than typicality, seem to have been the hallmarks of Elizabethan acting companies, especially when they visited the Inns of Court.

T.S. Dorsch (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, edited by T.S. Dorsch, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1-38.

[In the following excerpt, Dorsch speculates on three possible reconstructions of the 1594 Gray's Inn Hall performance.]

We do not know of any performance of The Comedy of Errors earlier than that which took place at Gray's Inn on the night of Innocents' Day, 28 December 1594. A description of the occasion on which it was performed has come down to us in the Gesta Grayorum, an account of the revels which were enjoyed at the Inn during the Christmas season of 1594-5. We know also that the play was staged at Court ten years later. The source of our knowledge is the Revels Accounts, a record of plays and masques kept at the Revels Office and submitted to the Treasurer of the Chamber for the payment of the players. In the record of the Christmas festivities at Court in 1604 we are told that 'On Inosents night The plaie of Errors', by 'Shaxberd', was performed 'By his Maiesties plaiers'.

We cannot know today just how Errors was staged on these two occasions, but at least for the performance at Gray's Inn we have, from our reading of the Gesta, reasonable grounds for conjecture. Three hypotheses seem tenable: one put forward by Chambers and Greg and followed by some later scholars [E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 1930; W. W. Greg, The Shakespeare First Folio: Its Bibliographical and Textual History, 1955]; a second envisaged by myself when I revisited the Inn; a third suggested to me by Mr Walter Hodges.…

As at the other Inns of Court, the Christmas Revels at Gray's Inn ran from the eve of the Feast of St Thomas (20 December) until Shrovetide (the day before Ash Wednesday). The Inns elected a member to preside as Lord of Misrule. At Gray's Inn he was called the Prince of Purpoole—a corruption, according to Quiller-Couch, 'facetiously borrowed from Porte Poule Lane, by Gray's Inn' (Portpool Lane still runs into Gray's Inn Road opposite the north end of the Inn) [The Comedy of Errors, ed. Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, 1922]; according to Margaret Knapp and Michael Kobialka [in "Shakespeare and the Prince of Purpoole: The 1594 Production of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn Hall," in Theatre History Studies 4, 1984], it was taken from Port-pool, the parish (they ought more properly to have said the Manor) in which the Inn was situated. For the 1594 Revels the Prince of Purpoole was Henry Helmes of Nor-folk.…

Built between 1556 and 1569, the hall has retained, in spite of some renovation in 1826, a very fine Tudor interior, 70 feet long, almost 35 feet wide, 47 feet high. At the top end was a dais, nine or ten feet deep, carrying the high table. Before it was the 'Ancients' Table' at which senior members of the Inn for whom there was not room on the high table took their meals; further forward a fireplace, which no longer remains. The students' tables stood parallel to the walls. The hall was partially destroyed during the second world war, but the fine west end suffered comparatively little damage, and the whole has been beautifully restored.

For the first reconstruction we must visualise a stage—the mart of Ephesus—backed by three houses, perhaps ad-joining one another, perhaps, as Chambers and Greg thought, separated by streets, one of them leading to the port. In such a set as this I would prefer to see the houses side by side, the road to the port being by way of a side-exit. The house-fronts would presumably be some three feet from the back of the hall (perhaps two would be enough, to give more front stage), so that the actors could pass from one side to the other as required by the action.

In the centre the priory, the most important building, is marked with a cross or some other religious emblem. On the one side is the house of the substantial and highly-regarded Antipholus, bearing the sign of a Phoenix. In this version of the stage it has a balcony on which (in 3.1) Luce and Adriana, when they Enter briefly, may be seen (above) by the audience while being invisible to the clamouring group below. On the other side of the priory is the Courtesan's house, with the sign of a Porcupine. The doors of the houses are made of wood (they are not curtains); one of them is banged hard, and needs an 'iron crow' if it is to be broken down.

Such a reconstruction as this seems to take for granted that the stage required for the performance was set up over the dais at the east end of the hall, and that the 'houses', including one with a balcony, were built for the occasion at the back of this stage. The account of the evening that has come down to us makes this seem very unlikely.… A second visit to the hall has persuaded me that the building of such a set would have been wasted labour, and that a very suitable, I would say ideal, alternative lay ready to hand.

A richly carved oak screen, reputedly the gift of Queen Elizabeth, extends across the whole breadth of the hall at its west end. It holds five handsome arched doorways with finely carved doors. Above the screen there is a gallery fronted by a solid balustrade supported by male and female busts standing on corbels.… Most fortunately the screen stands in the part of the hall that suffered least from the wartime bombing.

It seems to me very probable that the stage that we are told was built for the Innocents' Day festivities of 1594 was set up at the western end of the hall along the screen. It is possible—indeed likely—that a stage was assembled for other 'grand Nights' during Revels at the Inn; such a structure as I visualise would have been suitable for many kinds of plays (and other entertainments); the opening of one of the doors in the screen would have provided an inner stage, if it was required, and the gallery an upper stage. The stage, extending across the breadth of the hall, could be easily and rapidly assembled in sections, which would be kept in store for use on other such occasions. The central section would not have been set in place until the Prince, accompanied on this particular evening by distinguished visitors from the Inner Temple, had made his ceremonial entry through the central door, to be formally greeted by student 'officers' (possibly even by Master Benchers), and, when it was appropriate, to proceed to his throne on the stage.

I suggest that for The Comedy of Errors, as it was acted in the hall, the three inner doors, appropriately marked as in the previous reconstruction, would have served admirably as the entrances to the houses of Antipholus and the Courtesan, and to the priory. The two outer doors could well have been left open to represent the ways leading to the port and the city; they could indeed have served for any entrances and exits for which stage directions do not specify particular points of entry or departure. The gallery would, in 3.1, allow Luce and Adriana to appear (above) to the view of the audience, while remaining, as they stood back a little, hidden by the balustrade from the group below. I am not sure how Dromio of Syracuse would have been represented (within). Perhaps, in a hall, he could have been heard through a chink in the door as he shouted his abuse (with one exception his speeches are single lines); more probably he would have made himself visible to the audience by standing just within the open outer door adjacent to that of Antipholus's house.

Something similar to the stage sets that have been postulated here could have been provided at Court for the Christmas festivities of 1604 (or in other great halls); many of the courtiers had been Gray's Inn men, and some of them might have recalled the performance of 1594. I cannot suggest just how the play might have been staged if it had been performed in a public theatre. However, in The First Night of 'Twelfth Night', 1954, pp. 69-77, Leslie Hotson argues that 'small structural units of frame and canvas called mansions or houses.… with practicable doors, or with curtains', must frequently have been used on the public stages (as also at Court on a stage placed in the centre of the hall). If Errors was ever publicly played, it is possible that three such houses were set on the stage for its performance.

Obviously cost was not spared in the Gray's Inn Revels; a manuscript of 1586 (among the Burghley Papers) tells us that this Inn was the most prosperous of the legal foundations. As well as the 'very good Inventions and Conceipts' mentioned in the Gesta Grayorum account of this particular night, the Ambassador from the 'Emperor' of the Inner Temple, 'Frederick Templarius', and his entourage were 'very gallantly appointed', as the Prince of Purpoole and 'his Gentlemen-Pensioners' were on the previous night, 'the first grand Night' of the festivities. A special stage was built for the occasion—according to the first re-construction at the east end of the hall, in my version at the west.

The Prince of Purpoole would almost certainly have sat on the stage. We can picture him seated under a canopy, on a throne bearing his arms, together with his train and his guests. 'Lords, Ladies, and worshipful Personages, that did expect some notable Performance at that time' are there, 'which, indeed, had been effected, if the multitude of Beholders had not been so exceeding great, that thereby there was no convenient room for those that were Actors'. There may well have been a press, for in term the students numbered about 330, and in vacation about 220; and then the guests.

The 'Scaffolds … reared to the top of the House' would presumably be tiered seating at the sides of the hall, the tables having been removed, and between the scaffolds a space to be used for dancing or other purposes. On 20 December the Prince's Champion rode the length of the hall on a horse (? hobby-horse), and the Prince, accompanied by more than a hundred people, marched to his throne.

Instead of the houses at the back of the stage, Walter Hodges sees a curtain with enough room behind it for movement from one side to the other … A single door, carried on and off the stage by attendants, is held at a right angle to the front, so that spectators see clearly what is happening on both sides. Perhaps, as the scene requires, the edge of the door carries some sign (cross or phoenix or porcupine?) which tells us whose house we are seeing. People are standing in front of the stage, or sitting on the floor or on stools or benches; as in the previous reconstruction, the Prince and his following sit on the stage. For lighting there are chandeliers, and there may be torchbearers.…

This attractive suggestion is consistent with age-long stage practices in many countries—China and Japan, for example. It perhaps receives support from some words of Sir Philip Sidney [in An Apologie for Poetrie, 1595]: 'What childe is there, that comming to a Play, and seeing Thebes written in great Letters vpon an olde doore, doth beleeue that it is Thebes?' But we cannot be sure whether the child saw an old door that was carried on to the stage or a door that was stationary at the back of the stage.

Mr Hodges's method of presentation would be very effective in 3.1, where an altercation is actually taking place on both sides of a door; the audience would … see both of the Dromios as, unseen to each other, they bandy insults; they would also see the entry, within rather than above, of Luce and Adriana, who would remain invisible to the group outside. It would not, I think, be so satisfactory in certain other parts of the play. In the last scene, for example, there is a good deal of coming and going in and out of the priory (with such explicit stage directions as Exeunt to the Priorie and Exit one to the Abbesse), and, as in the preceding scene, much movement and some scuffling among quite a large number of people; a door across the stage would surely be in the way, and would also impede the Prince's view. In 4.1 we also have directions which indicate specific points of entry: Enter Antipholus Ephes. Dromio from the Courtizans (13), and Enter Dromio Sira. from the Bay (85). And in 3.2 it seems reasonable to suppose that Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana would enter through the door of the house in which they had just dined together, and that Dromio would escape from Luce through the same door. Other scenes, such as 1.1 and 1.2, would not be helped by a precise indication of their locality. Of the stage sets that I have described I favour those which have three adjoining houses at the back of the stage, and exits to (or from) the bay and the city. Naturally I give precedence to my own version.

The Gesta, describing what happened 'at Night' on that Innocents' Day, tells us that 'a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players'; at the 'inquest' on the following night these players are (as part of the joke) referred to as 'base and common Fellows'—the sort of term the grand young gentlemen of the Inn might, but not seriously, apply to professional actors. It has been assumed that these players were the Chamberlain's Men, but here we have a problem. This company is entered in the Chamber Accounts as having been paid for a performance to the Court at Greenwich on Innocents' Day 1594. Chambers, followed by Foakes, thought that there could have been a mistake in the Accounts, and that 27 (not 28) December must have been meant, for the company could not have played at Greenwich and at Gray's Inn on the same day [The Comedy of Errors, ed. R. A. Foakes, 1962]. I am not convinced by their belief. A solution to the problem is possibly to be found in a work by Mrs Stopes, who observed that the words 'at night' normally used in the Accounts for payments to players are on this occasion omitted [Charlotte Carmichael Stopes, The Life of Henry, Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's Patron, 1922]. It is not difficult to accept that the company played at Greenwich in the afternoon and at Gray's Inn late in the evening, perhaps acting the same play on both occasions.

Knapp and Kobialka assume that the 'Players' of the Gesta account were members of the Inn. It seems more likely that, as they are referred to in this account, 'those that were Actors' were members who had prepared an entertainment 'to be performed for the Delight of the Be-holders', but were unable to present it by reason of the 'disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage'; that, after a period of such 'Sports' as 'Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen', probably in the body of the hall, there was reasonable order once more, and a clear stage, and the 'Players', the Chamberlain's Men, who had been engaged to appear, and for whom an appropriate stage was ready in a hall with which they might well have been acquainted, were able to perform their 'Comedy of Errors'. With such a short play the performance could well have been over not much later than midnight. The account of the 'inquest', a tissue of jests, does not bear out the suggestion, tentatively offered by Mr Hodges, that the 'Company of base and common Fellows' were hastily summoned late in the evening 'to make up our Disorders'.

Still in the realms of conjecture, we turn to costumes. There exists a drawing (? 1594 or 1595) by Henry Peacham of a scene (not very accurately pictured) in Titus Andronicus; the principal men, Titus and two of Tamora's sons, are dressed in what we must take to be an Elizabethan idea of Roman clothes; Tamora and Aaron and two attendants are in Elizabethan garments—which it is thought was the normal practice, whatever the period in which a play was set. Had the players on that evening of Innocents' Day worn anything out of the ordinary, anything other than Elizabethan clothes, we could expect to have been told so in that detailed account of the 'Law-sports, concerning the Night of Errors'. There are elements in our comedy that recall Commedia dell'Arte performances. Mr Hodges thinks that the players might have worn clothes similar to those used in Commedia presentations; this is an interesting speculation, but it cannot be substantiated.


Clifford Williams • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1962-65, 1972


Hurriedly assembled in its initial mounting to fill a void caused by a postponed rendering of King Lear, Williams's production of The Comedy of Errors enjoyed a surprisingly warm reception during the 1962 Stratford season and was revived for a world tour and several presentations at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre between 1963 and 1972. At a time when many productions of Shakespeare were characterized by drastic experimentation, Williams chose to direct The Comedy of Errors in a largely straightforward manner, an approach most critics found refreshing and unpretentious. Simplicity and a feeling of improvisation were central operating principles behind both the sets and the acting. The stage consisted of three sloping platforms furnished only with several benches that were put to various uses. The play opened with a masque-like dance in which actors, dressed in drab rehearsal clothes, slipped into the brightly colored hats, gowns, and costumes they would use in the performance. This emphasis on self-conscious theatricality was further achieved by the cast's acknowledgment of the audience throughout the performance. Williams's production stressed fun and farce, from its commedia dell'arte touches to its playing of passages of archaic verse for laughs. The bewildering exchange between Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio in Act II, scene ii was treated in the manner of a Victorian music hall. Complex scenes, such as those at Antipholus of Ephesus' door in Act III, were realized in part through pantomime. One of the many memorable sight-gags was the "exorcism" of Antipholus of Ephesus by the doctor Pinch, whose attempts at chasing away evil spirits were punctuated with a generous supply of firecrackers. Although some critics found the opening prologue to be obtrusive and unnecessary, in general Williams's innovations were deemed intelligent. Declared "a milestone in postwar theatrical history" by Michael Billington, Williams's production is commonly judged the most successful modern staging of The Comedy of Errors.


T. C. Worsley (review date 12 September 1962)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in The Financial Times, September 12, 1962, p. 18.

With The Comedy of Errors standing in for the postponed Scofield Lear, the Royal Shakespeare Company score yet another neat success. This simple piece of fooling about twins and mixed identities can easily be prettified away by too much artiness or frittered away by too farcical clowning. Clifford Williams, the director, here steers a steady passage between the two.

He sets the play very simply on three up-sloping wooden platforms. He assembles the cast, dressed in basic grey, for a brief modern masque to Peter Wishart's charmingly allusive, off-beat music. Then they pick up coloured hats and cloaks, and the fun begins.

Mr. Williams is by good luck or good judgment particularly happy in his Syracusan Antipholus and Dromio. Alec McCowen's comic talent is particularly well suited to the situation in which this master and servant find themselves. For, travelling to Ephesus, they have come to a city where, unknown to either of them, each has a twin brother. So the master is assailed by an unknown woman claiming to be his wife, and the servant is ordered to and fro by a duplicate of his own master.

The permutations and combinations of this mix-up of identities are worked out in a series of scenes-which call for a great deal of comic resource if they are to keep us amused. Mr. McCowen is particularly well endowed with just this resource, and is given a free hand to deploy it, with the happiest of results. And Barry MacGregor as his servant is no less adept at making the situations work for him, but also at making his language jokes remarkably explicit for a modern audience.

The success of this production is its simplicity. There is nothing in excess. Reputedly, this is a weak play—it hasn't been played at Stratford for 24 years. But the director has had the sense not to give it the full producer's treatment, but instead to give the text its chance, and, in the hands of two comic experts and a stalwart company, it comes up very fresh.

Mr. Williams decorates the central action with an unobtrusive harlequinade, and has fun with his Pinch. This is the doctor who, when the wife comes to the conclusion that her husband and his servant are possessed, is called in to exorcise the spirits. James Booth, plentifully supplied with firecrackers, makes this tiny part a small gem.

The company under their director are to be congratulated on an excellent piece of rescue work. All fit in with the producer's design which requires a sharp attack combined with a careful selection of detail so as to make a neat comic effect without overstressing. In a phrase, they give us style without attitudinising, a difficult thing to achieve but one which the company have certainly brought off here.

J. C. Trewin (review date 22 September 1962)

SOURCE: "Setting the Scene," in The Illustrated London News, Vol. 241, No. 6425, September 22, 1962, p. 456.

Scarcely a day before reaching "The Comedy of Errors" at Stratford-upon-Avon, I had been in the Umbrian hill-town of Assisi that seems to grow from the side of Mount Subasio. There can be no place gentler than this complex of streets and piazzas, now tawny, now rose-coloured, a mediaeval world enchanted still by the memory of Saint Francis. I have rarely known anything more suddenly affecting than the picture of Assisi with its coronal of towers, and the outline of the Rocca Maggiore above all, as I saw it late one afternoon through a window of the highset Pinacoteca in Perugia. There, perhaps eighteen miles distant, across the great Umbrian plain of vine and olive, Assisi lay, a perfect miniature, in the intensely clear light: something, it appeared to me at that moment, of a beauty greater than even the treasure of the Perugian galleries.

In spirit, Assisi is quite untheatrical: yet, day after day, I found myself thinking in terms of stage effect. When we approached it first, coming from the plain down by Santa Maria degli Angeli, the city before and above us in the burning Umbrian day seemed to proclaim itself in a splendour of blank verse. Within its walls, and at every turn in its streets and stairways, I spied some new passage for the stage, some fresh union of balcony and cornice and the weathered rind of wall or pantiles. It is maybe strange to speak thus of a town that does not flaunt, that is never self-conscious. But, even on my holiday from the theatre, I could not help discovering a theatrical world, one unaware of its quality. Certainly at this hour Assisi knows little about the stage. I did light upon what could have been once a theatre, with a proscenium and a lowered red velvet curtain. But to-day it is a quiet, agreeable bar, and by night no mouse is stirring.

Earlier in our holiday we had been in Venice which, of course, is joyfully, resplendently theatrical and knows its power. It was right that we should have spotted one of London's leading theatre managers as he walked over a canal bridge. A famous comedienne sat at a table in the Piazza of St. Mark. Neither manager nor actress would have looked at home in Assisi. On the night before we left, a choir was giving a sacred concert in the open air before the façade of the Duomo. Strong light upon the ancient stones and the intent singers; a rapt audience in shadow; a half-moon overhead: that, I suppose, was a picture more in key with Assisi than the scenes from classical drama with which I had filled street and stair and walled garden.

True; but as I watched and listened to "The Comedy of Errors" at Stratford—after wondering while I walked over to the theatre what the bone-dry Umbrian plain might look like in a thoroughly wet summer—I knew that, in imagination I was seeing the brothers Antipholus, the Dromios, and the rest, not on a bare, three-levelled ramp, but hurtling in and out of the streets of Assisi: now in the Piazza del Comune, by tower and Roman temple-into-church, and now in the mediaeval length of the Via Bernardo da Quintavalle, with its splendid name. Actually, the scene of the "Errors" is supposed to be Ephesus. No matter: it is scampering we can set where we please. I do not think that anyone will seriously blame a director for what he does with Shakespeare's most helter-skelter piece. Stratford remembers yet the pink bowler hats thrown in by Komisarjevsky during 1938; and on other stages I recall versions that have turned the entire epistle from the Ephesians into mild and tinkling operetta.

Clifford Williams, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, has been content to get from the farce as much fun as possible. He pads it out rather obviously with commedia dell'arte miming, and the first moments were so portentously glum that I wondered whether I was in the right theatre. Still, doubt was very brief. When Mr. Williams kept to the fooling, nothing much went wrong, even if I have never been able to regard Pinch, schoolmaster and conjuror, as a fantastically comic figure. He has about a dozen lines; I think of the part usually for one of the grossest pieces of over-acting in my remembrance. James Booth, at Stratford, is less obtrusive. When we can see him among the smoke and the fire-crackers, he does not appear to me like a "hungry, lean-fac'd villain… a needy, hollow-eyed, sharp-looking wretch." In fact, he resembles a pompous, shoddy Mephistopheles.

The Dromios have regularly failed to delight me in the theatre, and it is no reproach to the Stratford actors that I continue to stay unamused. The other pair of twins, the brothers Antipholus, can be exhilarating company. So they are now. Alec McCowen (from Syracuse) and Ian Richardson (of Ephesus) are the most ingenious and likely brothers I recall. Mr. McCowen presents a lofty, sententious fellow, purring over his wisdom while he utters such profundities as:

I to the world am like a drop of water,  That in the ocean seeks another drop,  Who, falling there to find his fellow forth,  Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself.

He is ineffably superior when his man "lightens my humour with his ready jests." Naturally we are pleased when everything happens to him at once and Adriana claims him as her husband. Though we realise that Diana Rigg is speaking her long tirade ("Ay, ay, Antipholus, look strange and frown") with a great deal of spirit and variety, she has to lose our attention: that is given to Mr. McCowen's expression in which we see his bewilderment magnified and his flash of startled interest at "I am possess'd with an adulterate blot." After the torrent has sub-sided, the actor gives to the line, "Plead you to me, fair dame?" a comic emphasis that it is unlikely to have had before.

Ian Richardson is just as sure as the other twin, a mild and reasonable citizen (burdened with a shrewish wife) who storms suddenly into protest when faced with locked doors, perjured goldsmiths, and ferocious conjurors. He is the kind of man, as he explains to the startled Duke, to "gnaw with my teeth my bonds in sunder." (He gnaws Dromio's as well.) Thanks to Mr. McCowen and Mr. Richardson, most of the action is genuinely comic. And the director, sagely, has not interfered with the the long, early narrative of Aegeon that Tony Church delivers with a curiously moving truth: we are obliged to believe in him. Mr. Church, now with the steadily persuasive Abbess of Pauline Letts, even gets something from the last huddle of recognitions:

If I dream not, thou art Aemilia:  If thou art she, tell me, where is that son  That floated with thee on the fatal raft?

Beside this scene I must always put the recognitions at the end of Molière's "L'Avare" (in the Malleson version): " … There I have lived for sixteen years, mourning the loss of my wife and children. I came here, under an assumed name, to start life anew; and here, miracle of miracles, I find the old one—my two children and my wife."

It is, on the whole, a cheerfully theatrical Stratford night. If, as I say, I found myself at the première using Assisi as a background, that was pardonable in one newly returned—though the gentle place is more truly what Richard Church's poem calls "the little town of linnets" ["North of Rome"] than a frame for the helter-skelter inand-out of an early Shakespearean farce.

Peter Roberts (review date November 1962)

SOURCE: "Applied Surgery," in Plays and Players, Vol. 10, No. 2, November, 1962, pp. 52-3.

One of the mixed delights of regular visits to Shakespeare productions in these must-be-with-it times is the constant element of surprise. One never knows quite what one is in for. These are the days when directors approach Shakespeare with a desperate got-to-do-something-different attitude that is likely to bring you your Lear looking like a piece of Gruyère cheese, your Julius Caesar witnessing the Twist, your Hamlet moping in Ruritania, your Troilus and Cressida making Edwardian-costumed love, not to mention your Henry V braving the French in khaki battle-dress.

These in consequence are not the best days for the great Shakespeare plays whose abiding qualities rarely respond to the directorial jugglery performed so earnestly and so unnecessarily on their behalf. But the time is ripe for Shakespeare's lesser children, his bastard offspring whose ravaged faces lie forgotten in the Collected Works awaiting precisely the sort of producer's plastic surgery available today. For we have with us now a whole race of practised surgeons who will effortlessly run you up a theatrical face-lift so that your doggerel will shine as pure poetry, your tortured word spinning and leaden malapropisms will gleam with wit and your knotted plot-ends will unravel at the drop of a hat.

Formerly the favourite way with an early doubtful or difficult Shakespeare offering was to choreograph and decorate it so that its intellectual deficiences were hidden in a borrowed balletic splendour. Recently a change has set in that is more flattering to the beholder. The new style producer pays the audience the compliment of supposing they will prefer (and appreciate) a Utile sophisticated send-up of Shakespeare to an evening of beguiling spectacle. Consequently the tendency is to strip the decor down to essentials and allow the producer liberally to wink at Shakespeare's text across the footlights at the audience. We saw this method at work recently at Stratford in William Gaskill's Brechtian Cymbeline where the prevailing tone was amusingly irreverent despite the contrasting radiant sincerity of the Imogen.

Something along the same lines has been attempted by Clifford Williams in his production of The Comedy of Errors, rushed in to fill the gap caused by the postponement of the Scofield Lear. And so entertaining an evening does Mr Williams make of The Comedy one doubts whether it merits quite all the scorn that has been levelled at it. The main criticism has been that in out-Plautusing Plautus by introducing two pairs of twins for the Roman playwright's one, Shakespeare overstepped all reasonable boundaries of probability. But there is something in Coleridge's special pleading that in farce you can get away with what would not be allowed in comedy; and it was after all a shrewd move on Shakespeare's part to anticipate criticism by introducing the lunacy scenes and by stressing that Ephesus after all had a reputation for odd happenings. The tragic overtones of Aegeon's opening and closing scenes do very effectively offset the farcical caperings in between. Moreover in exploiting the single discrepancy between the audience's and the participants' awareness of the true explanation of events, the young Shakespeare was taking on a difficult Une of comedy to which he never returned but which he handled adroitly enough. One does after all weary of the doggerel, word play and rhymed verse long before one has had enough of the permutations of mistaken identities.

Far from attempting to conceal the weaknesses of the play, Mr Williams derives much strength for his production from his (and therefore our) amused apprehension of them. He begins by insisting that we are aware that this is a company of actors going through the motions of a play which we should all stand outside of. Accordingly, the cast assemble on three central raked platforms in neutral grey uniforms where they perform a short masque to attractively off-beat music by Peter Wishart. There are a few mimed jokes and then the actors attach to their bodies pieces of costume under which the basic grey can always be glimpsed to remind an audience not to suspend its dis-belief. This is anyway unlikely as Mr Williams is quick to make fun of the play itself, vide the unfunny catechism on hair between Antipholus of Syracuse and his Dromio which is treated in the spirit of Victorian music-hall. When, later, a door is needed an actor indicates its presence a la Marcel Marceau with mime, and when it is no longer needed he cancels it with a gesture. With these and a thousand other touches Mr Williams helps the lame text over its stile. Only in the inflated treatment of the episodes with Pinch, played by James Booth with exaggerated props and costumes and plenty of firecrackers, does the fun flag and the production drop momentarily to the level of high jinks you might expect at a childrens' party.

Mr Williams is fortunate in his cast, particularly in the Antipholus of Syracuse played by Alec McCowen who has comic resources of his own which he is able to spin out when Shakespeare's don't go quite far enough. Both McCowen and Ian Richardson (the other Antipholus) succeed in looking strikingly alike but have the good grace to sound a little different so that the audience is not involved in mistaken identity quite as much as the characters. The two Dromios (Ian Hewitson and Barry MacGregor) sound more alike but look a good deal different, despite the fact that they both wear identical false noses.

Diana Rigg, whose work with the company has become consistently more interesting this season, contributes a delightful study in wayward femininity as Adriana. Her discreet use of melodramatic tone and gesture creates comedy quite independent of the text. Pauline Letts makes a dignified appearance as the unlikely Abbess who disentangles the plot-ends and Patricia Burke, as Luce, an early edition of the As You Like It Audrey, succeeds in living up to Dromio's vivid description of her.

The experts' verdict on The Comedy of Errors is usually that it acts better than it reads. It is the supreme merit of Mr Williams' production that he succeeds in persuading us that it might even read better than it acts. This production in fact is a delightful hors d'oeuvre to the heavy meat of the Scofield Lear next month.

Robert Speaight (review date Autumn 1963)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 427-28.

"The myriad-minded man, our own and all men's Shakespeare". Coleridge's famous words introduced his half page of commentary on The Comedy of Errors. It was no slight affair but a very solid and intricate piece of dramatic carpentry that Mr. Clifford Williams so brilliantly brought to life a year ago. Designed as a stop-gap, this has become one of the most popular items in the Stratford repertoire. I saw it both in 1962 and 1963, and the difference between the two productions—apart from one or two minor changes in casting—was the difference between a wine which had been only a year or two in bottle and a wine which had matured. This particular wine is now perfectly ripe for drinking. The last legitimate laugh had been squeezed from audiences only too glad to give them; the "business" had not yet become over-labored; and the company still gave the impression of enjoying their night out. The merit of the production lay not only in its unflagging invention and verve, but in its refusal to allow the deeper implications of the farce—and nothing is more serious than farce—to become obscured for those who were ready to receive them. Aegeon's long recital of his misfortunes became, in Mr. James Welsh's deeply sincere treatment of it, something much more than a récit de Théramène; we were genuinely concerned that he should escape the block. The Shakespearian themes of reconciliation and rediscovered identity announced, already, their later and more famous repetitions. The Abbess was an authentic dea ex machina—no mere figure of fun; it was not for nothing that Ephesus and Syracuse would henceforward exist in amity; and although the average spectator would hardly have guessed how much Shakespeare had taken from St. Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, he might have been prepared to verify the references once they had been pointed out to him.

Mr. Williams used the convention of the commedia dell' arte to much effect without overdoing it. Mr. John Wyckham had designed a sloping platform set on three levels—a lucid and economical solution which allowed the hilarious charade of improbabilities to flow without let or hindrance. I thought the costumes were rather lacking in color and fantasy, but the incidental music, with its accompanying mime, marked appropriately the progress of the story. The Dromios were so identical that I was often at a loss as to say which was which, but the Antipholi were rightly more distinguishable. Mr. Ian Richardson's Antipholus of Ephesus had grown in definition since I first saw the production, and stood out in forceful contrast to Mr. Alec McCowen's Antipholus of Syracuse, whose bewilderment was pointed with every nuance of vocal and facial expression. Miss Diana Rigg's attractive Adriana would have been improved by a steadier diction, but apart from this my only criticism was to question the utility of the introductory parade where the actors presented themselves in black shirts and jeans. I suppose the intention of this was to emphasize the artifice of what we were presently to see, but the effect was merely to remind us that the Royal Shakespeare Company were about to perform a play—a fact of which we were happily aware already. This production was a worthy companion to Komisarjevsky's charivaria of thirty years ago. Stratford generally regards The Comedy of Errors as beneath its attention, but in neither case was there the slightest condescension in its treatment of the play.

Jeremy Kingston (review date 2 June 1965)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Punch, Vol. CCXLVIII, No. 6508, June 2, 1965, p. 828.

Clifford Williams's production of The Comedy of Errors (Stratford-upon-Avon) was first seen in 1962. It was not scheduled to have a run of more than a couple of dozen performances but so enthusiastic was the reception that it has been re-appearing at Stratford and at the Aldwych every year since. It went on a world tour with the Scofield Lear, has been televised by the BBC, and last June was given a command performance before the Royal Family at Windsor Castle. The production is still so excellent that I hope we shall never be without it.

From the very beginning the audience senses that the evening is going to bring delight. The cast enters wearing black trousers and sweaters or black frocks and take up formal positions on a set that looks like a megalithic flight of steps. They peer doubtfully at one another, pair off with a partner and nimbly skip off into the wings. When they re-appear they have pulled on brightly coloured jerkins, slashed sleeves or gowns over their black clothes (costumes by Anthony Powell) and the play begins.

The complicated plot of Shakespeare's first comedy is simple to understand in principle. A pair of identical twin brothers, by name Antipholus, and their two servants, also identical twin brothers, by name Dromio, are unhappily split from each other in infancy when their ship goes down in a tempest and the mast to which all four have been secured snaps in the middle. One Antipholus and Dromio float to Syracuse and the other Antipholus and Dromio float to Ephesus where, twenty-three years later, the pair from Ephesus call on business. From then on all the merchants of the town, wives, mistresses and friends mistake each twin for his brother, the Dromios mistake their masters, and the Antipholuses their servants, until the final happy end when long-parted father, mother, sons and servants all meet and go off to a gossips' feast.

The play begins with a lengthy speech by the father Aegeon in which the circumstances of the twins' birth and parting are made known. A mark of the excellence of the production is that not for one moment does Timothy West forfeit our attention during his more than a hundred lines of narration. Mr. West, who has been seen recently as a sad lover, a killer, a pedant and a brave old man, is an actor who perfectly manages the art of sinking himself (to use a rather odd phrase) in a role while at the same time presenting an interpretation which is unforgettably his own.

Ian Richardson, Ant. of Eph. hitherto, has taken over the larger part of Ant. of Syr. He acts it with a marvelous array of quavering hesitations and alarmed glances at the incomprehensible behaviour of everyone around him. The other Antipholus, Charles Kay, reacts to the absurd muddle either by raining blows on the unfortunate servant who happens to be his Dromio at the time or by going rigid all over with passion. Michael Williams and Robert Lloyd are splendid as the two pert Dromios. They looked so alike with their ruddy faces and putty-tipped noses that the audience soon abandoned any attempt to remember which was who. One of them was about an inch taller than the other but I am afraid that I too have forgotten which of them it was.

Among the many other joys of this memorable production is the relish with which the more jingly couplets are spoken (the quality of the verse is not high) and Elizabeth Sprigge's roguish Courtezan draped in black gauze and with the best part of what looks like a bamboo bush swaying about on top of her head.

Michael Billington (review date 21 June 1972)

SOURCE: "Comedy of Errors at Stratford," in The Guardian, June 21, 1972, p. 8.

Clifford Williams's famous production of The Comedy of Errors is a milestone in post-war theatrical history; for back in 1962 it was the first production to indicate the formation of a genuine Royal Shakespeare Company ensemble style. And it was heartening to see it at Stratford last night, after a slowish start, coming across almost as fresh, buoyant and inventive as a decade ago.

Two things make it remarkable: Mr Williams's recognition of the fact that Shakespeare's intricate farce about double identical twins is rooted in human character and his ability to highlight the weirdness and mystery inherent in the story. Thus, in a brilliant comic performance, John Wood's Antipholus of Syracuse reacts to the whirlwind events around him like someone imprisoned in a Kafkaesque nightmare: a shrill panic invades his voice as [he is] feverishly importuned by women he has never seen before, he frantically wards off a devilish courtesan by making the sign of the cross and, as people flee in terror before his drawn weapon, he concludes with superb deliberation—"I see these witches are afraid of swords." Mr Wood triumphs by following a classic rule of farce: playing the character as if he believed the nightmares around him were real.

But for all this, the production is still a group achievement. Judy Cornwell's Adriana, for instance, makes the crucial Shakespearian point that there is a genuine core of feeling under the women's shrewish exterior. The two Dromios, Geoffrey Hutchings and Chris Harris, are also like opposite sides of the same comic coin: the one reared in music hall, the other in mime. And even a minor character like the Goldsmith gets his due from Gerald James who makes him an epicene Ephesian, in yellow gloves and striped turban. Starting with nothing but a troupe of players in black sweaters and jeans and a triple-tiered stage, Mr. Williams gradually adds colour and detail like a painter filling out a canvas; but the production's ultimate success lies in its suggestion that behind the mistaken identities and manic confusions of farce there are often genuinely dark and disquieting forces at work.

Jeremy Kingston (review date 28 June - 4 July 1972)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Punch, June 28-July 4, 1972, p. 924.

Back in 1962 Clifford Williams directed The Comedy of Errors to fill a gap caused by the postponement of Peter Brook's King Lear. It became a hit, toured the world, amazed Izvestia, delighted the Queen and popped successfully back into the repertoire in 1963, 1964 and 1965.

Now it has been revived again (Stratford-upon-Avon) as a sweet butterdrop slipped in between the meatier fibrous stuff of the season's Roman plays and the production is not, cannot be, so captivating. Although the cast is different, much of what they do, perhaps most of it, closely follows what their predecessors did seven, eight, nine and ten years ago. Yet in that time other directors have adopted and adapted, among other features, the cast's sprightly awareness of an audience's presence, the playing of archaic comment ("Why, what an intricate impeach is this!") for laughs. One prime quality of those first productions, therefore—Novelty—has gone.

Before Clifford Williams, the play, considered a tough nut, was seldom performed. Because his production is the only one I have ever seen the play's difficult reputation seems an incredible fact but this is precisely a measure of Mr. Williams's brilliance. He devised a style that perfectly fitted the play's sublime contrivance of long-parted identical twin brothers and their long-parted identical twin servants whose unexpected meeting brings about all the confusions you would expect.

To bring alive these farcical events, where plot almost totally dictates character, the cast initially present themselves to us in black rehearsal clothes, facing us on the three receding wooden platforms of the stage like ciphers awaiting traits. They spring into the wings and return sporting the brightly coloured badges of their characters—sashes, jerkins, slashed sleeves. They are actors acting and we are not to forget it.

The misadventures that follow are still ingeniously comical, deft and cheering, but the comedy is most satisfying when the Antipholus from Syracuse (John Wood) is on stage. It is here that play, production and performance reach beyond the mechanisms of comical errors to touch the daunting commedia of this our life. John Wood's tall drooping good-natured Jacobean gallant moves amazed through a world gone suddenly awry. Silently stammering a syllable behind the misleading information brought him by the wrong slave, invited to bed by strange women, receiving golden chains from unknown merchants—"This fellow is distract," he marvels, "and so am I. We wander in illusions." His long face shows the amazement of a youth flung suddenly into the bewildering world of men.

As the two putty-nosed servants there is good fooling by Chris Harris and Geoffrey Hutchings who, when a door is needed, mimes the chalking of it in the air and after-wards wipes it out and grinds the invisible chalk dust into the floor. The production glows with such felicities. Corin Redgrave, the more aggressive Antipholus, is just the sort of man one can picture "gnawing with my teeth my bonds asunder."

The evening is a theatrical treat. If the novelty is gone, the old amazement past, this is less important than the continuing ability to make a silk purse out of (I'll take their word for it) a tough nut.

Benedict Nightingale (review date 30 June 1972)

SOURCE: "Fresh Fields," in New Statesman, Vol. 83, No. 2154, June 30, 1972, p. 917.

Is there not extraordinary animus in that passage—more vividly written than anything else in the play—about the venom clamour of a jealous woman poisoning more deadly than a mad dog's tooth? If there were not nowadays so potent a taboo against translating dialogue into biography, one might be tempted to see The Comedy of Errors as the poet's celebration of his escape from the shrew Hathaway—that poor woman, execrated by tradition because she was eight years older than Shakespeare, therefore apt to be domineering, therefore deservedly left behind in Stratford and (eventually) cut off with his second-best bed. But never mind their emotional origins: the words are put into the mouth of an abbess standing in the very portals of her priory, which makes them, I suppose, as near to an ex cathedra utterance as you'll find in a Shakespeare play.

Now, Adriana of Ephesus, at whom the speech is directed, is not handled unsympathetically nor denied the opportunity to put her case against her newly acquired but mostly absentee husband. 'Why should their liberty than ours be more?' she asks, meaning men in general; of him in particular:

Hath homely age the alluring beauty took From my poor cheek? then he                hath wasted it… Do their gay vestments his affections bait? That's not my fault; he's master of my state: What ruins are in me that can be found, By him not ruin'd?

If she is a shrew, he made her one. Shakespeare concedes all this, only to fall back on the argument he was to put more famously in Troilus and Cressida, that everyone has his divinely appointed station in the system. As someone else declared—funnily enough, also with Ephesians in mind—servants must submit themselves to their masters, wives to their husbands. Antipholus may rave nightly through the streets: it is Adriana's destiny to sit at home and learn to like it.

I don't know how this idea appealed to Elizabeth I, or how it appeals to Elizabeth II, at whose command an earlier version of Clifford Williams's production was performed at Windsor Castle. Howls of royal rage were not reported on that occasion, possibly because the royal brain did not twig what point was actually being made. But it goes without saying that a generation that cannot tolerate the word 'obey' in the marriage service, and sometimes not even the institution of marriage itself, will find some of the play's attitudes beneath contempt; and therefore there may be some excuse for the modest attempts Mr Williams has made to correct its biases. His abbess is numbly and un-assertively played. Corin Redgrave's Antipholus of Ephesus is an irritable, arrogant, unlikable young man, and Judy Cornwell's Adriana, far from being a dummy run for The Taming of the Shrew, is a warm, game, restive girl, as sympathetic as any young wife who is defiantly trying to stave off marital disillusion.

In other words, Williams resists the stereotypes and tries to penetrate to personalities, leaving us to disagree with Shakespeare's conclusions if we wish; and his principal method is simply to assume that most of the euphuistic, conceited and (his word) 'jingly' text actually means something worth hearing. For instance, Antipholus of Syracuse lectures his presumptuous servant with

When the sun shines let foolish                        gnats make sport But creep in crannies when he                        hides his beams.

I had seen this as mere decorative metaphor, without dramatic function. But John Wood, who plays the part, speaks the words very carefully, in tones at once reasonable and patronising, priggish and slightly apologetic, as a headmaster might tick off a favourite pupil; and what he doesn't allow us to miss is the pride and smugness of a man calling himself 'the sun'. As a result, the bewildering, unnerving events that undermine him afterwards have the more point, and prove the funnier.

Mr Wood's emergence from the theatrical rump is one of the happiest things to have happened to the British stage over the last two or three years. Every time I go to see him, I fear I will begin to find that deliberate, slightly nasal delivery mannered and tedious; and every time he astonishes me with the variety and subtlety of which it is capable. This isn't his best performance, but, given the psychological penury of the text, it is extraordinarily good. A strange woman clasps him to her bosom, roaring, 'I am possessed of an adulterous blot'; his servant ignores the orders he has given and obeys those he has not given; person after person hails him as the twin he does not know he has. But Mr Wood quickly moves beyond the obvious anger and amazement. He accepts that the world has gone totally awry—pocketing a proffered purse of gold with a quick, gratified shrug—and becomes a sort of Renaissance Dr Watson, a wary, dedicated, rather incompetent sniffer-out of conspiracy and witchcraft. Eventually he reaches the only reasonable solution: 'The fellow is distract,' meaning his servant, 'and so am I.' He delivers the last four words lightly, almost gaily, a detective more relieved to unmask the villain than worried that the villain is himself; and the audience collapses with laughter.

An astonishing amount of laughter is extracted from both characterisation and commedia dell'arte plot: my only criticism is that in the later stages the fun tends to become narcissistic, a matter of sending up the text itself. But, altogether, Mr Williams deserves a Royal Humane Society medal for rescuing a play long presumed comatose.…

Stewart Trotter (review date August 1972)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Plays and Players, Vol. 19, No. 11, August, 1972, p. 52.

The Comedy of Errors has never had me rolling on the floor—but I'm not at all sure that it's meant to. In spite of the fun—in fact in the middle of the fun—there's a lot that's really sinister. To be given proof that you're someone else, to have the door slammed in your face by a loved one, these are basic fears common to most of us. Clifford Williams' legendary production, flung together ten years ago in a mere five weeks and hailed—even outside Britain—as muddling through triumphant, suffers from no such reservations.

When the actors first file onto the stage, though, all black polo necks and glum faces, it looks as though we're in for a bit of commitment. But no. A few winks and nudges and we're off to the land of golden-hearted rascals where nothing could possibly ever go wrong.

All of which makes the opening scene just a little difficult to play—a scene where a man is told that he's going to have his head cut off. Clifford Williams solves the problem in a flash—a funny old Aegeon and a funny old Duke.

Now, in a comedy of resolution, it's generally best to have something to resolve. But Mr Williams prefers more immediate returns. He trades in an anguished Antipholus searching for his brother for a cleaned-up Frankie Howerd searching for laughs. Even Balthazar—with his continual, crucial pleas for social restraint—doesn't escape. He becomes a grumpy old man. Funny with it, mind you.

And so on and so on. By the time we get to the Courtesan we're no longer surprised that we're asked to laugh at her profession: when she says 'Forty ducats is too much to lose', it's just the exit line of a camp Soho Madame; there's no suggestion that these are after all the economic facts of life. In the same way Antipholus' desperate restraint of his passion for Luciana, 'I'll close mine ears against the mermaid's song'—gets lost somewhere in the slaps and the tickles.

Here—as everywhere in this play—Shakespeare is showing a society that's gradually falling apart. But Clifford Williams' Ephesians—given to standing on their heads and taking alligators for walks—were never together in the first place. They simply do not provide the threat—'the liberties of sin'—that Shakespeare intended. They even go to sleep at the interval so we won't worry about them in the fight for the bar.

So when the Ephesian Establishment finally drags on Pinch we're almost prepared for Phillip Manikum's swaying, incompetent alcoholic. No powers of darkness here—no power at all in fact. Just a few gags with fireworks, exploding barrels and noughts-and-crosses boards. In Mr Williams' world, magic means no more than pantomime.


Douglas Seale • American Shakespeare Theatre • 1963


Seale's staging of The Comedy of Errors was praised for its exuberance and light-hearted tone. The director's most conspicuous innovation was his decision to have one actor play both Antipholus twins, and one play both Dromios. Alan Pryce-Jones remarked that this doubling lent a degree of realism to the rather fantastic plot of mistaken identities. The final scene, in which both sets of twins appear on stage, was managed by cutting several lines and introducing two new actors to act as silent doubles. As Clifford Williams had done the previous year in his production at Stratford-upon-Avon, Seale incorporated the traditions of the commedia dell'arte into his staging of The Comedy of Errors. Periodically, a troupe of half-masked commedia players would appear onstage, mirroring the plot of the play in pantomime. Some reviewers found this approach distracting and ultimately tangential to the performance. "As the evening progressed," Dunbar H. Ogden observed, "one began to wonder just what these figures had to do with the play." The set, designed by Will Steven Armstrong, evoked a sunny Mediterranean seaside town, and a colorful mosaic decorated the floor. Howard Taubman commended Douglass Watson as Antipholus for his "swashbuckling vigor" and Rex Everhart as Dromio for his "comic gusto."


Howard Taubman (review date 13 June 1963)

SOURCE: "Syracuse Boys," in The New York Times, June 13, 1963, p. 28.

The American Shakespeare Festival Theater does not, praise be, walk hat in hand in the presence of The Comedy of Errors. It romps and roars through the youthful farce in the exuberant high spirit in which it was composed.

Douglas Seale has directed this production—the second in this season's Shakespeare repertory, which opened last night—with undiminished zest. Aware that The Comedy of Errors is as broad as it is boisterous, he has directed so that it can be appreciated for what it is—a play for the stage without pretensions to loftiness or profundity.

He has chosen to place the piece in a 17th-century frame-work, and Will Steven Armstrong has seconded the notion with a gay, sunny set that reflects the light of the Mediterranean and his handsome costumes. For background Mr. Seale has helped himself to the traditions of commedia dell'arte, adding bystanders en masse and even a Harlequin and Columbine to decorate or react to the events of the story.

This background cannot alter the simple-mindedness of the tale with its fun dependent on mixed identities and slapstick, rather than character. But it suggests a style in which rough-and-tumble comedy is developed on a foundation of artificial elegance.

Where this style is maintained, this Comedy of Errors is wholly delightful. When Carrie Nye as Adriana takes off in flights of mannered passion, remembering to sound her vowels and to relish her iambic pentameters, she is a choice comedienne.

When Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana join in a courtly dance as a counterpoint to their parrying with love, Harlequin and Columbine imitate them at the rear, not mockingly but affectionately. With Herman Chessid's music the scene conveys a sense of unexpected poetry to supplement its laughter.

Since the stuff of The Comedy of Errors is thin, Mr. Seale's invention must be unflagging. Not all of it remains faithful to the production style. There are dubious resorts to vulgarity in the modern manner, like wolf whistles and coarse contemporary articulation.

Mr. Seale's idea to have one actor for both Antipholuses and one for both Dromios works smoothly. In the final scene, when the two sets of twins are on stage and have lines to speak to one another, Shakespeare must give way a little and the few lines are eliminated. And when Dromio of Ephesus is without, demanding that his master's door be opened, who speaks but Dromio of Syracuse within?

Douglas Watson, a brilliant Edmund in King Lear, plays the two Antipholuses with swashbuckling vigor and livery humor. He is a fine, versatile actor who moves with controlled vitality and speaks with admirable clarity.

Rex Everhart handles the two Dromios with unfailing comic gusto. Since each Dromio endures his meed of beatings, Mr. Everhart is in double jeopardy, but his impudent good cheer is never impaired, nor are Dromio's putty-nosed looks.

As he tells his twin, a silent double for the concluding scene, "I see by you I am a sweet-faced youth." And he is—both of him.

There are divertingly broad performances by Lester Rawlins as a goldsmith, Tom Sawyer as the mountebank, Pinch; Josef Sommer as a cleric and Rosemary Murphy as a buxom courtesan who, in a moment of annoyance, fishes a miniscule fan from a generously exposed bosom. Patricia Peardon as Luciana, Patrick Hines as the Duke Philip Bosco as Aegeon and Betty Bendyk as Aemelia convey glints of humor while holding fast to their patrician airs.

After the cataclysmic King Lear has come a rambunctious Comedy of Errors This, too, is Shakespeare.

Alan Pryce-Jones (review date August-September 1963)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Theatre Arts, Vol. XLVII, Nos. 8-9, August-September, 1963, pp. 14, 68.

The Comedy of Errors stands on the threshold of Shakespeare's career. It is a kind of charade, by no means easy to follow, and demanding an acute period sense to be thought funny except in patches. First praise, therefore, must go to the direction of Douglas Seale which is aimed at giving its humors a basis in the commedia dell'arte, and generally rubbing up its faded colors and crowded persiflage to the brilliance of a Tiepolo.

The commedia characters tumble onstage at the opening, while Philip Bosco, as Aegeon, a merchant of Syracuse, sets out the basic improbability of the plot. Ephesus and Syracuse are at odds, and the law has it that all traffic between the cities must cease on pain of ransom, or failing ransom, death. Aegeon, years before, has lost one of his sons in a shipwreck, and it is in search of him that he has come to Ephesus. His sons are twins, and they possess twin slaves bestowed on them at birth. Both sons are called Antipholus, both salves, Dromio. No wonder that even the partial account of these adventures bewilders the Duke, who listens to Aegeon with the air of an old-fashioned English nanny, but nevertheless decides that unless he can find a ransom within twenty-four hours, die he must.

After that we are launched on a sea of mistaken identities, made much more realistic by Mr. Seale's decision to assign both sets of twins to a single pair of actors. Douglas Watson is the dual Antipholus, Rex Everhart the dual Dromio, and the arrangement works extremely well except at the end when the denouement requires two men on the stage to do the work of four.

However, the charade atmosphere is so well caught that nobody cares. As the Dromios, Rex Everhart is outstanding. He even differentiates between them. Douglas Watson is matched by Patricia Peardon and Carrie Nye as Luciana and Adriana, her sister. The Angelo of Lester Rawlins stands out, as does the Courtesan of Rosemary Murphy. Will Steven Armstrong has provided gay costumes in an elegant setting. All that is lacking is the music of Richard Rodgers.

Dunbar H. Ogden (review date Autumn 1963)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 4, Autumn, 1963, pp. 437-38

Douglas Seale … directed The Comedy of Errors, displaying a rich and fresh imagination for countless gags with Douglas Watson as both Antipholus of Ephesus and Syracuse and with Rex Everhart as the two Dromios. At one point in the repartee between servant and master the seated Antipholus balanced his Dromio on his knee and played at ventriloquist and dummy. And then there was that interminable business with the rope. All in all the major action was pervaded by a sense of riotous fun for its own sake, in which the actors themselves seemed to thoroughly enjoy the sport. This doubling of the twins, though adroitly handled by the costume designer and delightfully carried off by the performers, led Mr. Seale to bring on an extra master and servant pair for the final confrontation, and after having succeeded admirably with his major actors, he chose to prominently display the new pair rather than allowing them to deliver their lines with their backs to the audience.

Apparently in order to alleviate the long opening recital, the director introduced a troupe of commedia dell' arte players. As Aegeon related his past history, the half-masked actors filed on, seated themselves facing the audience along the front edge of the apron, and occasionally one or the other mimed a bit of what was being said stage center. But as the evening progressed one began to wonder just what these figures had to do with the play. Upstage center they erected portions of a trestle stage, moved from pose to pose, watched the action, and at one point two members of the company interrupted the drama with a dance. But never did the troupe become part of the performance. They set up their stage and then dismantled it.

In addition to their unnecessarily distracting presence, Will Steven Armstrong constructed a very busily colored set. Right and left stood the two-story houses of Antipholus of Ephesus and the Courtesan, respectively. Up-stage center consisted of a relatively large open area reserved for the commedia observers. A slightly raised platform stage center—between the two houses—was the site of most of the action. But those audience members seated in the balcony looked down upon a complex, mosaic floor.


Robin Phillips • Stratford Festival, Ontario • 1975


Phillips set his production of The Comedy of Errors in the Old West, although he remained faithful to Shakespeare's text in most other respects. The Duke was cast as a wealthy rancher, the Dromios were cowboys, Aemilia toted a shotgun, and the Antipholus twins were—as John Pettigrew characterized them—Mississippi riverboat gamblers. Dominating the center of the stage was a large Conestoga wagon. For Berners W. Jackson, it was an image rich in layers of association. "The wagon was everything," he stated, "and no one thing: perhaps a symbol of migration, whether over seas or prairies, and final settlement; perhaps simply a center as versatile as the country store." In general, critics looked favorably upon Phillips' unusual thematic setting. Clive Barnes felt the combination of Western locale and Elizabethan language served to emphasize the themes of bewilderment and estrangement that are the essence of Shakespeare's play. "Weird," he mused. "It is a Ray Bradbury science-fiction novel." The performances were noted for their energy and athleticism. Barry MacGregor as Antipholus of Ephesus was singled out for his well-timed slapstick routines.


Clive Barnes (review date 12 June 1975)

SOURCE: "Kathleen Widdoes Shines in Ontario Twelfth Night," in The New York Times, June 12, 1975, p. 29.

Twins are at the heart of Twelfth Night but twins are virtually the entire story of The Comedy of Errors. Mr. Phillips (I presume the concept was his rather than Mr. Toguri's, who is obviously responsible for the vivid dance and musical staging) has decided to place the play in the Canadian Far West, while the West was still being won, and the play's setting is a covered wagon.

Normally time-traveling in Shakespeare does not interest me, but here Mr. Phillips seems to have a point. The story—pinched from a couple of plays by Plautus—concerns two pairs of twins, separated at birth, but growing up in a fashion identical enough to delight those favoring the importance of genetic over environmental conditioning in the formation of character.

Putting the play in the Canadian West has its charms—it also makes one reassess the little values of the story. What happens? Two young men, master and servant, enter a strange town, and find that everyone recognizes them. Weird. It is a Ray Bradbury science-fiction novel.

The play was very brightly done. Mr. Phillips—as does Mr. Jones—favors a physical approach to Shakespeare with calisthenics mixed up with the poetry, which is splendid, but people do throw things about rather too much, however deftly they catch them.

The cast, drawn from a new, young ensemble company being formed within the main company, was pushy, extravagant and vivid. The two pairs of twins proved delightful—with Nicholas Pennell (looking exactly like a cartoon character who had wandered into someone else's cartoon) and Barry MacGregor as the twin masters and Bernard Hopkins and Richard Whelan (looking as alike as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee excellently impersonating Mexican bandits) as the twin servants. Equally good were Jackie Burroughs and Gale Garnett as the fair women.

John Pettigrew (review date February 1976)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Journal of Canadian Studies / Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. XI, No. 1, February, 1976, pp. 55-6

The Comedy of Errors is … light-weight Shakespeare, but it is of its kind (a much less Shakespearean kind than The Two Gents) a fine play, and sure-fire box-office. Mr. Phillips,… working with Mr. Toguri, and with the able assistance of his designer Jeffrey Sisco, set the play in a very curious kind of American midwest about ninety years ago; and the stage was dominated by a huge covered wagon that was at various times a kind of tiring-room, a cornucopia disgorging hundreds of actors and acrobats, a priory, and a convenient kind of wall to hang beer-mugs, laundry and so on on. Mia Anderson's Emilia was played with beefy heartiness, a thick Irish accent, a shotgun that sounded like Big Bertha and probably was, and worksocks and workboots that were eminently appropriate for an un-usually massive lumberjack. The Dromios were cowboys, the gentlemen's costumes seemed like exactly the kind of thing Mississippi riverboat gamblers would have liked, Miss Bentley-Fisher's courtesan and Mr. Donkin's Dr. Pinch looked like nothing that ever was on sea or land. Included in the goings-on were a most athletic and enjoyable square dance which, when it got to 'Shave and a haircut,' was ended with Big Bertha's "boom boom" for the "two bits." There was a Dook of Ephesus, a fruity goldsmith, a remarkable sung burlesque of cowboy movies, a long song (reportedly written by Mr. Phillips himself) about Identity which struck me as being rather better than the kind of thing it was taking off, a good deal of other delightfully catchy music by Alan Laing, every music-hall turn that has ever been used and some that haven't been but should have been, acrobats and handwalkers, umbrellas, and swinging saloon doors for the Phoenix—and, hanging overhead, a gallows reminder of the fate due Aegeon. Stephen Russell's messenger, in a sweat to get his message delivered quickly, stammered; Jackie Burroughs' Adriana, in the midst of berating Antipholus of Syracuse for not behaving like Antipholus of Ephesus, broke into an operatic aria; Luciana called out to her sister, "Sister," and got a curious look from a passing nun who was male with a mustache; Dr. Pinch pushed what looked like a decrepit ice-cream cart and mixed up a potion amid explosions and thick fogs; Barry MacGregor in a superb performance as Antipholus of Ephesus twirled his watch a few zillion times before releasing it in midflight to find its way unerr-. ingly into his waistcoat pocket, and enunciated his elucidatory intricate fifth-act plot-summary of fifty-one lines without drawing breath and with absolute clarity in what seemed to be roughly ten seconds. The production was extremely brisk, athletic, precise as clockwork, and often as busy as a three-ring circus. It was—I think unquestionably—the most successful Shakespeare performance of the season. It is true that it offended many purists, one group of whom, I was told, demanded their money back on the grounds that the Bard of Avon was being Mortally Insulted and that there are no seaports in the mid-west plains.I too am a purist (and I don't want Elsinore in Nebraska or Glamis in Haiti), but I'm sure Shakespeare would have revelled in this zany production in which further incongruities added to the fun of a zany play. In fact, the production was very much more faithful to the spirit of Shakespeare's work than was the fine commedia dell'arte version of 1963: here for instance, Aegeon's plight was made very real rather than being guyed as it was by Tony van Bridge's memorable self-pitying and tedious gasbag in the Gascon production (a conception which, Athanasian though I be, I still find the right one—if Aegeon is not a funny bore he becomes, as in Richard Curnock's finely-spoken performance in this production, a tedious one able to reduce a whole audience to a state of somnolent stupe-faction).

This year's production had more than enough imagination to keep a dozen normal ones going. It was very much a Company triumph, but one must single out the directors, the designer, and the composer; Barry MacGregor; and the two Dromios of Bernard Hopkins and Richard Whelan, who could, I found, only be told apart through the responses of the Antipholuses to them. The Nell of Dromio of Syracuse is surely the only possible candidate for the title of "most unforgettable Shakespeare character who never appears," but I don't suppose that any actor will ever make her more appallingly actual than did Bernard Hopkins. And a special tribute must go to Jan Kudelka who in an excellent understudy performance as Adriana told Luciana to defer to male superiority in what used, quite properly, to be regarded as a civilized manner, and found her remarks being greeted with great enthusiasm and cries of "Hear, hear" from a gentleman of the right school of the Good Old Days in the audience. Miss Kudelka, in full flight of pleasing sentiments, paused only momentarily to fix said gent with a glittering eye that would have put Coleridge's old salt to shame and that would have made any mere old Gorgon feel herself distinctly inadequate and in urgent need of further rehearsal.

Berners W. Jackson (review date Winter 1976)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pp. 27-9.

The Comedy of Errors [at Stratford, Ontario] was partly a musical production with a song at the beginning and the end and bits of singing and dancing along the way, but the text remained intact, even to the extent of all of old Aegeon's lengthy speech in the first scene. In a presentation that did not deny farce and slapstick their rightful place, Mr. Phillips was careful to preserve those wistful touches of loneliness and bewilderment that give the play a perspective beyond the reach of burlesque. The closing song was about identity. The music was Alan Laing's. The words, I suspect, were by Mr. Phillips. The subject sounds an unpromising one for lyrical composition, but in the event, sung movingly by the full cast, the song celebrated, without vulgar sentimentality or pedantic stress, a theme that is woven into the texture of the play.

The setting was the North American West in the late 1800s, yet none of the language nor any of the names were changed. The sea was still close at hand, Aegeon was a merchant of Syracuse, Ephesus was the scene of the action, and Solinus was the Duke of that city. There were a few who found this incongruous and upsetting, but I found that, with the text intact, any discrepancies were superficial and not disturbing. It is less disturbing to the unity of the play to imagine that the Duke of a place called Ephesus appears to be a wealthy rancher, than it would be to find Hoss McGillicudy, boss of the Lazy Cactus near Tombstone, inserted into the text of Shakespeare's play.

The question remains as to why the play should be set in the old West, and I cannot answer it. It may be that Mr. Phillips was being overly clever in attempting to construct a message about appearance and reality by finding an identity between the society of a Greek city and that of another continent where similar bourgeois values and the energies of the nouveaux riches were jeopardizing the brotherhood of man. It is more likely that he was simply having some fun with a play that has asked for that kind of treatment since it was first written. However that may be, the production was the funniest that I have seen, and all the more effective because the funny business was never allowed to get out of hand, and because its serious moments were taken with just the shade of seriousness appropriate to each of them.

A large Conestoga Wagon or Prairie Schooner dominated the center of the stage. Around it cowhands and farmers lounged. Near it Adriana fed her chickens or hung her laundry to dry. Merchants met beside it. This and that Dromio and Antipholus circled it in their various confusions. The Duke pronounced sentence on old Aegeon beneath its shadow, and from it emerged the Abbess, firing a shotgun to end a rousing square dance so that she could begin the series of revelations that conclude the play. The wagon was everything, and no one thing: perhaps a symbol of migration, whether over seas or prairies, and final settlement; perhaps simply a center as versatile as the country store.

It was a triumphant production for the Young Company, full of acrobatic energy, but with the farcical and slapstick bits so crisply timed and adroitly performed that one had the impression of watching some preposterously enjoyable sleight-of-hand. Barry MacGregor, who never seems to put a foot wrong in comedy, exhibited a music hall dexterity as Antipholus of Ephesus, consulting a ponderous gold watch and then flipping it nonchalantly through the air and into his lower waistcoat pocket, juggling a lighted cigar and ending up with it between his teeth, staggering precariously across the stage with a large barrel on his shoulder in an attempt to break down the doors of his occupied home, racing through the forty lines of his speech of explanation to the Duke in about one minute flat without apparently drawing breath. Nicholas Pennell encountered the perpetual bewilderment of Antipholus of Syracuse with a comic stiffness of the upper lip and rigidity of the spine, fighting a losing battle to maintain a crisp punctilio against the withering effects of embarrassment and passion. There was a tempestuous Adriana from Jackie Burroughs, a model, at times almost a caricature, of the frenetic housewife strung out by frustrations, real and imagined. Her sister Luciana was played by Gale Garnett as a prim and proper, bookish maiden, obviously destined for the eternal spinsterhood of the village schoolmarm, but saved by the arrival of Antipholus of Syracuse.

Dromios came and went with astonishing rapidity: Bernard Hopkins and Richard Whelan, from Syracuse and Ephesus respectively, made up to look so much alike that the naked eye could not tell them apart. However, the ear could, because their Unes were so adroitly handled that even someone who did not know the play could understand the growing confusion in Ephesus without being confused. Clarity of line in the midst of a dazzling fluidity of movement, the achievement by director and cast of a kind of choreographed chaos: these qualities made this production definitive of what The Comedy of Errors ought to be on stage, regardless of costume and setting.


Trevor Nunn • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1976


Nunn's musical version of The Comedy of Errors was acclaimed by many critics for its originality, lavish ornamentation and strong, spirited cast. Musical numbers, composed by Guy Woolfenden with lyrics by Nunn, were organized around turning points in the plot and memorable lines, such as Luciana's "A man is master of his liberty" (II. i. 7). Said Irving Wardle of the score, "It does not give you much to hum on the way out, but it supplies a springboard into dramatic song and dance." Roger Warren complained, however, that musical comedy and Elizabethan farce were incompatible, and he argued that "the sung ensembles tended to merge everyone into puppets, and to blunt personality." The production was universally described as stylish, colorful, and rich in comic detail. The market at Ephesus was presented as a modern day tourist trap, complete with novelty shops and vendors hawking straw hats, postcards, souvenirs and T-shirts sporting the name "Ephesus." Minor roles were played as caricatures: the Duke was a Greek generalissimo, while the goldsmith, Angelo's creditor, represented a 1930's American gangster. Noted Wardle, "All this represents no particular time or place, but it is certainly the do-main of comedy." Comic routines were characterized by slapstick, set pieces, and circus gags. Michael Wills and Nickolas Grace, playing the Dromio twins, were especially praised for their acrobatic clowning.


Irving Wardle (review date 30 September 1976)

SOURCE: "Comedy on a Winning Streak," in The Times, London, September 30, 1976, p. 12.

[The Comedy of Errors] has been a lucky play for the RSC in the past, and this production looks certain to continue the winning streak. In it, Trevor Nunn moves from the balletic economy of Clifford Williams's version to the opposite extreme of lavish ornamentation, not to mention reworking the piece as a musical.

Ephesus, as staged by John Napier and Dermot Hayes, is a funcity bursting with novelty shops and tourist traps, swarming with gloved mobsters and amiable thigh-flashing tarts, and under the thumb of a hulking ducal dictator (Brian Coburn) who first waddles on under a load of military fruit salad to deliver his judgment on Aegeon over the public address system.

All this represents no particular time or place, but it is certainly the domain of comedy; and comedy of a kind that expands naturally into music. As with the RSC's previous excursions into popular music, Guy Woolfenden's score knows its place. It does not give you much to hum on the way out, but it supplies an admirable springboard into dramatic song and dance. The lyrics, mainly built from turning points in the plot, have the effect of further translating the story into fairy tale.

The sentence on Aegeon is worked up into a chorus number that turns his predicament into a game. Likewise, Antipholus's proposition to the indignant Luciana (a spinsterly bespectacled Francesca Annis) changes into a playful duet.

By such means the whole show ascends into comic fantasy. Antipholus, locked out of his house, conducts an enraged debate over the intercom which he finally pulls away from the wall. The culminating hue and cry starts during a western and takes place to the sound of gunshot and thundering hooves. Also, there are delicious added details such as Richard Griffiths's officer, a glum stooge dragged around after his captive and making a dejected ceremonial appearance in Greek army tutu and long combinations.

At present there are moments when the company are having too much of a good time but the comic centre is already strong enough to survive the raw edges. We are unlikely ever to see a funnier Adriana than Judi Dench, a peremptory odalisque downing her terrified servants with flying trays and point-blank bursts from the soda syphon and relapsing into voluptuous submission with her supposed spouse.

The two Antipholuses get finally contrasted and physically close casting from Roger Rees (wearing his camera even into the bedroom) and Mike Gwilym, a sharp gum-chewing resident who fits precisely into the Las Vegas-like setting. Michael Williams and Nickolas Grace dispatch two carrot-haired, baggy-jeaned Dromios with balletic clowning. And Robin Ellis's Dr Pinch goes off nicely in a puff of smoke. A treat.

Michael Billington (review date 1 October 1976)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in The Guardian, October 1, 1976, p. 10.

Following in the footsteps of Rodgers and Hart, Trevor Nunn and Gay Woolfenden have decided to treat The Comedy of Errors as a musical. And, while it would be idle to deny that the production is full of bounce and gaiety and that at the end the house rose to it, I must confess I don't think it's a patch on the legendary Clifford Williams version. Whereas that trusted the play to make its own effects, this one treats it as a defective text that has to be turned into a gagfilled, dance-bedecked Mediterranean romp.

The problem is that a musical farce is a contradiction in terms. For Shakespeare, leaning heavily on Plautus, devised an almost fool-proof plot in which two masters and two servants are led through a maze of intrigue and dream-like confusion. If the plot has to be constantly stopped for a mock Theodorakis number, or Zorba-like dance one loses that sense of vertiginous bewilderment that is the essence of farce. And it seemed to me a sign of the way the basic situation failed to "take" that when at the end Judi Dench's Adriana announced "I see two husbands" there was almost no response. This confirmed for me that the audience was responding to applique effects rather than the dynamics of the situation.

I don't warm to the concept. But I admit it is exuberantly executed by a spring-heeled cast. Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym as the two Antipholuses cleverly suggest that they are physical look-alikes and temperamental opposites. And Michael Williams and Nickolas Grace as the two Dromios both project their numbers with a physical attack for want of which the British Musical has long languished. Francesca Annis also scores yet again as a studious Luciana who takes off her glasses and Uves. But, while the production is full of harmonious sound and audible fury I couldn't help feeling it also signified nothing.

Sally Emerson (review date December 1976)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Plays and Players, Vol. 24, No. 3, December, 1976, p. 37.

Shakespeare raided Plautus to create The Comedy of Errors and it in turn has fuelled many an extravaganza and musical. Komisarjevsky's outstanding production at Stratford in 1938 helped to release a stampede of irreverent, entertaining variations on the theme. In multifarious costumes from many ages, the characters embellished the text with their colourful bowler hats, graceful dances and lively songs. The stuffy objected to this production, considering it an insult to Shakespeare, but the public loved it. Next came the American musical The Boys from Syracuse, turned into a film in 1940. Other transformations include a Victorian musical comedy set in the North of England, an operetta in Regency costume, an Edwardian extravaganza and a New Orleans waterfront musical. In 1970 the Young Vic presented it complete with motor cycles and bicycles and in 1962, revived in 1965 and 1972, Clifford Williams directed it at Stratford in the Commedia dell' Arte style, adding some exquisite mime scenes.

Stratford's last production, by Trevor Nunn, is more rollicking fun. Songs, music and dance oil the wheels of this cleverly constructed but rather mechanical farce and spirited acting galvanized the slight characters into life. The text reads drily nowadays: the puns are dated and, as H B Charlton has remarked, the plot appears 'a mathematical exhibition of the maximum number of erroneous combinations of four people taken in pairs'. But there's nothing arid about this version.

Even in the morning, when Aegeon arrives looking for his lost family, Ephesus has the pleasure-loving air of a sea-side town. Tourist shops are gaudy with postcards, straw hats and T-shirts emblazoned 'Ephesus'. Whorish girls lean from balconies in silky dressing gowns, a gloved 30's gangster lurks and a fat poof minces. It's lorded over by a comically vast dictator, Brian Coburn, with equally oversize epaulettes. This disreputable town is very much the domain of the shady Antipholus, played with lean, gum-chewing sleaziness by Mike Gwilym. His cruel confidence makes his confusions all the funnier and more satisfying, as if the Godfather slipped on a banana skin. Although he and his twin look startlingly alike, Roger Rees gives Antipholus of Syracuse the charming innocence of an overgrown schoolboy. When he's mistaken for his brother by nefarious characters—the gangster-merchant, the poof-goldsmith, the courtesan—his bewilderment is magnificent to behold.

The two Dromios are red nosed, red haired clowns with short baggy jeans and braces. Their stocky bodies shift easily into expert acrobatics and footwork but their faces lacked the range of their masters. Nickolas Grace has a catchy song 'My Master Beats Me' which he delivers with bouncy verve and nimble movements. I only wish they did not look quite so similar: the audience should always know who's who so that they can immediately see the hilarious confusions on stage.

Judi Dench as Adriana, the discontented wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, mixes sourness with passion and creates a character both shrewish and sympathetic. Her studious and myopic sister Luciana (Francesca Annis) is a comic contrast to the sturdy Adriana with a liking for the revealing dress and the bottle. The lightly sketched love of Antipholus of Syracuse for Luciana is here expanded into a delightful duet which Francesca Annis and Roger Rees perform wittily and gracefully.

The RSC's melody maker Guy Woolfenden has composed nine new songs in a variety of styles, from rock to Greek. The zappy choral songs add pace and lift to the production but the delicate solos occasionally slip the play into first gear. Gillian Lynne's choreography is inventive and well-matched by the skills of the actors.

Michael Billington (review date 15 November 1977)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in The Guardian, November 15, 1977, p. 10.

I did not greatly warm to the Trevor Nunn-Guy Woolfenden musical version of The Comedy of Errors when I saw it in Stratford last autumn. The frenetic Mediterranean fun seemed to overlay Shakespeare's brilliant farcical construct (borrowed, of course, from Plautus). But now I am prepared to eat the humblest pie, for the version playing at the Aldwych has a heart and soul as well as the largest collection of sight-gags since Guthrie's heyday and is, quite simply, one of the most joyous entertainments in town.

I can, in fact, pinpoint precisely the difference between the London and Stratford versions. When, originally, Judi Dench's Adriana announced, after the twin masters and twin servants had gone through a maze of intrigue, "I see two husbands," the line was greeted with stony silence: a sure sign that the situation had failed to take. Now the line is greeted with an instinctive roar which Miss Dench instantly quells with her hushed delivery of the rest of the sentence—"Or my eyes deceive me." In short the gags are now given a human context and all the Keystone Coppery, the collapsing chairs and tables, the entry phones and Evzones, the village film-shows and squirting soda siphons create the right sense of vertiginous bewilderment. This is farce with a human face.

Even Guy Woolfenden's mock-Theodorakis music, which before all too literally stopped the show and delayed the farcical momentum, now seems to work with the play rather than against it. It would indeed be hard to resist Nickolas Grace's popeyed, rubber-limbed, broomstick-twirling number as the Dromio of Ephesus complaining of his master's beatings or Michael Williams's gradual ascent into a Zorba-like dance as he turns a riddling Shakespearean conceit into a display of communal energy.

Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym as the two Antipholi, physical look-alikes but temperamental opposites, Judi Dench as a giggling harridan of an Adriana, Richard Griffiths as an earth-larding constable, and John Woodvine as the conjuring Dr Pinch, speaking as if a clothes-peg encased his nostrils, are also perfectly in key. At Stratford when the cast sang "Now let's go hand in hand, not one before another," and came down into the auditorium it seemed like an empty copy of Brook's Dream. At the Aldwych it is the only possible end to an evening of shared gaiety.

Ned Chaillet (review date 15 November 1977)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in The Times, London, November 15, 1977, p. 17.

An Italian village square bedecked with trinkets and tourist goods is as likely as any place for an updated musical version of The Comedy of Errors to take place. In Trevor Nunn's already lauded production, which Irving Wardle reviewed in Stratford last year, those "boys from Syracuse", Antipholus and his slave, Dromio, find more than the multiple confusions Shakespeare landed them with. There is tumbling, dance, escapes across the square on a high wire and Mr Nunn's own songs with music by Guy Woolfenden and, of course, there are the twin brothers. Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus.

In Mr Nunn's production the Royal Shakespeare Company is seen at nearly full strength with hardly a slack performance even in the back of the chorus, and because it is a musical the chorus has much more to do than carry the plot along. When the twins from Syracuse first begin to be mistaken for their Ephesus look-a-likes there are bar-girls and waiters to witness the confusion. By the time the resident wife, goldsmith, police officer and courtesan have been caught up in the confusion, the entire village is in pursuit.

Though the twins manage to look remarkably alike, with Roger Rees as the Syracuse Antipholus, giving an uncanny imitation of some of Mike Gwilym's characteristics, it is their individual talents that show through the outrageous costuming. Michael Williams clowns with his mobile face while Nickolas Grace, as the Ephesus Dromio, gives an impressive exhibition of his athleticism in some purely extraneous dance. Judi Dench as Mike Gwilym's presumed wife, convincingly harries Mr Rees into the house to dinner and into bed, scarcely letting a joke slip past her without winningly telegraphing it to the audience.

There is such talent in the company and there are enough clever bits of business, enough stylish slapstick and such witty modern readings of Shakespeare's words that is really unnecessary for Mr Nunn to provide such obvious gags as the one in which the gay goldsmith sits down in protest among the women while the men all stand. For the most part it is a joyful bazaar of comic invention clearly calculated to entertain. Though it is sometimes uncomfortable with Shakespeare's language, it certainly has the spirit of his play.

Bernard Levin (review date 20 November 1977)

SOURCE: "Comedy as Shakespeare Would Like It," in The Sunday Times, London, November 20, 1977, p. 37.

I have lately found it difficult to resist the conclusion that the RSC, in presenting within the span of a single week The Days of the Commune, Factory Birds and The Sons of Light, must be in league with my relations, who are trying to drive me mad to get their hands on my money, and have clearly promised Trevor Nunn half of it if he will help them realise their aim. When, therefore, an invitation arrived for The Comedy of Errors at the Aldwych, I started like a guilty thing upon a fearful summons, and followed, for safety's sake, the traditional advice to gatecrashers: Go in backwards, then they'll think you're just coming out.

All is forgiven! For the joy with which this production (by Mr Nunn himself) is filled, and the lift of the spirit it gave me, will keep me warm till spring, be the winter never so hard, with the recollection of its carefree magic, sureness of taste and ceaseless flow of comic invention. It successfully completes the trio of exorcisms the RSC have lately undertaken in order to lay three tremendous ghosts from their past; first, John Barton reproduced A Midsummer Night's Dream, though after Peter Brook's version it must have seemed an impossible task; next, Terry Hands gave us all three parts of Henry VI, thus struggling out from beneath the sunlit shadow of the Hall-Barton staging; and now we have this, to live in our memories alongside the Clifford Williams version of the Sixties.

Mind you, I knew it was going to be all right even before the performance began, when Meg Davies, playing Nell, wandered out with a besom and started to sweep the stage, murmuring in a motherly tone to the front row of the stalls: "I'll just tidy this up a bit, then you can put your sandwiches down." Actually, I knew even earlier, for the stage was already ablaze with the colours of the Ephesus street in which the entire play is set; displayed for sale at the booths and shops that line the scene are T-shirts, holiday hats, trays, brassware, rugs, fake ikons, pots, dolls, postcards, souvenir swords and friendly ladies. After that, I felt that nothing could go wrong; nor did it.

The playing is as inspired as the conception of the characters, which is saying a good deal. The Duke (Brian Co-burn) is a kindly Colonel Papadopoulos with 14-inch epaulettes; the Abbess (Marie Kean) straight out of a stage-Irish nunnery; the goldsmith (Paul Brooke) a plump fairy; the Dr Pinch (John Woodvine) a combination of a conman, an unsuccessful prestidigitator and an escaped lunatic who believes himself to be Henry Irving; the goldsmith's creditor (Keith Taylor) a broad-lapelled mafioso; the officer (Richard Griffiths) first a motor-cycle cop with a permanent expression of frozen suffering on his face and an unfortunate knack of catching his fingers in a collapsible chair, and later a skirted evzone who instantly gets his halberd stuck in the ceiling. And these are only the smaller parts.

The two Antipholuses (Mike Gwilym and Roger Rees) are impeccably interchangeable, both flickering like lizards through the play's symmetrical writhings; the two Dromios (Michael Williams and Nickolas Grace, the latter happily recovered from a broken ankle but apparently determined to break the other, so hilariously uninhibited are his acrobatics) are likewise mirror-images in characterisation. And crowning the whole carefully ramshackle structure is the Adriana of Judi Dench, sweeping the plot before her like a tempest on skateboards, knocking back the Campari with a repeated squeal of combined rage and dismay, and demonstrating once more that she is a comic actress of consummate skill, perhaps the very best we have.

As for Mr Nunn, his imagination never pauses for breath. Even the slapstick (I am a very difficult man to please when it comes to slapstick) seems fresh as well as funny, right down to such chestnuts as the one in which the intended victim of a rain of blows keeps bowing, so that they rain on someone else. Loveliest, and most lovingly handled, of all the jokes is the use of a door entry-phone for the scene in which the Ephesian Antipholus is shut out of his own house; runner-up is the one in which the patient bellows down the stethoscope and deafens the doctor.

I am told that the lyrics for the pastiche pop-songs with which the play is studded (each on a theme suggested by the lines) are by Mr Nunn, too, though the modest fellow allows himself no credit in the programme. Never mind; there is credit enough for him in the production, of which I think we can safely say that if Shakespeare could see it he would laugh himself into forty fits, feel proud of his early achievement, kick Mr Nunn, not very hard, for the cheek of it all, and go his way rejoicing. So did I.

Anthony Curtis (review date 25 November 1977)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Financial Times, November 25, 1977, p. 3.

Trevor Nunn's production of The Comedy of Errors opened at Stratford in September of last year when it was greeted with enthusiasm. Perhaps a purist might be affronted by Mr. Nunn's re-vamping of the romantic comedy in the style of a Sondheim musical set among the cafe tables in the market square at Ephesus, which is festooned with fairy-lights, but it is difficult to see how anyone could remain a purist for long in the face of such gaiety and such virtuosity. If the play has any deeper level than merely that of the author's intoxication with language and the language of theatre, it lies in the sustained pursuit of non-sense logic over a bewildering multiplicity of situations. The comment made by Antipholus of Syracuse when bidden to enjoy his brother's conjugal rights: "I'll entertain the offered fallacy," about sums it up.

The framework for the fallacy provided by this production proves infinitely resourceful as the misunderstandings proliferate. On one side of the stage is the Antipholus' household with its balcony and much-plugged door-phones, on the other the house of ill-fame into which he is lured, while below between the two ablaze with tourist-trap clothing hanging from the street-market stalls is an area where the band plays and the company in their light-weight suits or long dresses can disport themselves, every so often bursting into song and dancing to Guy Wolfenden's music. Set-pieces abound; one involving the projection of a Western while the chase for the missing Antipholus and his Dromio occurs in front of the screen, is both hilarious and brilliantly executed.

There are far too many fine comic performances to mention in a brief, belated notice. Suffice to say that although both Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym look like identical twins they manage to create quite distinct personalities; and the same is true of their two menservants, Michael Williams and Nickolas Grace, who prove to be as good as acrobats as they are comedians. Judi Dench and Pippa Guard make a nice contrast as Adriana and her sister Luciana with some highly professional song-and-dance routines during the apparent defection of the head of the household. John Woodvine's Dr. Pinch needs to be seen to be believed and Paul Brooke turns the boring role of the goldsmith into a constant source of laughs by making him an old-style queer with flapping wrists. Somehow even this gag becomes acceptable. Any parent looking for a Christmas treat that is also a painless introduction to the mechanics of Plautine comedy should book now.

John James (review date 9 December 1977)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare Rules OK," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3261, 9 December 1977, p. 54.

The Comedy of Errors is a preposterous play of bewildering mistaken identities, confusions and coincidences. Thin on poetry and thick in plot, it needs the firm hand of an inventive director and a company of practised comedians to make sense of its nonsense. Trevor Nunn's lively production has both. Aegeon of Syracuse has lost his identical twin sons both named Antipholus, with their two servants who are also identical twins named Dromio, and comes to Ephesus seeking them. Unknown to him, one son with his servant has grown up in Ephesus and married. And the other son and servant are also visiting Ephesus from Syracuse. Syracusans are forbidden in Ephesus on pain of death, Aegeon is arrested and the play begins.

Trevor Nunn has produced The Comedy of Errors as a musical, with his own lyrics to Guy Woolfenden's music and dance arrangements by Gillian Lynne. The setting is contemporary: a square in a small Greek town which is run by a soft-hearted fascist generalissimo Duke whose sole officer is cousin to the keystone Cops. The place is hung around with goods and girls for sale, a riot of colour reminiscent of the pages of The Beano and The Dandy.

It is a production full of deft comic detail. One by one the old routines of slapstick, farce, music-hall, silent films and circus spring to new life in a performance punctuated by bursts of laughter and spontaneous applause. There are excellent singing-dancing waiters Balthazar is the local pope; a merchant to whom Angelo the goldsmith is in debt is a petty gangster, and Angelo himself is a marvelously mincing swinger by the skilful Paul Brooke. The two Dromios fall, roll and leap with breath-catching agility.

All in all, this show looks set to be the best substitute for a pantomime in town. With double helpings—two Idle Jacks named Antipholus, two Simple Simons named Dromio, two Principal Girls called Adriana and Luciana, a Demon King in Dr Pinch (a red-nosed roaring clown) and a Fairy Queen in white called here "Aemelia—an abbess"—it makes ideal festive fare. It should prove a god-send to families and schools demonstrating that, far from being boring, Shakespeare Rules—OK!

Roger Warren (review date 1977)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 30, 1977, pp. 176-77.

For The Comedy of Errors, John Napier transformed the permanent set into a contemporary, cluttered Turkish market; Aegeon was clearly in the rag trade, and garments festooned the balconies; the balcony of Adriana's house overlooked this market; the Porpentine and the Tiger were bars in the market, complete with a group to provide a backing for Guy Woolfenden's interpolated musical numbers. Again and again, a scene would stop for a song based on fragments of the text at that point, or simply on doggerel supplied for the occasion. Adriana and Luciana had a duet, 'A man is master of his liberty', Antipholus of Syracuse a solo based on 'Am I in earth'; a large-scale ensemble illustrated his

There's not a man I meet but doth salute me As if I were their well-acquainted friend

which turned into a nightmare of illusions; Pinch's exorcisms were built up into an even longer ensemble; both Dromios had extended numbers, one to illustrate the feeble jokes about Time and baldness, the other to elaborate on the beatings he receives. Although these numbers appeared to derive from the text itself, they in fact had the effect of superimposing one medium on another.

Trevor Nunn rightly says that the play works 'when it genuinely uplifts us, when it makes us feel better'. The RSC's previous celebrated version (1962-72, directed by Clifford Williams) achieved exactly that, but there the 'company' feel derived not from generalized routines but from the characters being sharply detailed individuals, reacting to each other and to their situations, out of which the humour arose. Here, the spoken text was again packed with appropriate invention, often very funny, especially the shutting out of Antipholus of Ephesus and the contradictory evidence of the finale, played as a courtroom drama, complete with 'exhibits'; but the sung ensembles tended to merge everyone into puppets, and to blunt personality. These interpolations may have been good for the general morale of the company but they did not seem to me actually to help the performances of its individual members in any way.

Roger Rees's Antipholus of Syracuse, for instance, was potentially excellent, but the director's routines did not help him develop that potential into a complete characterization. Luciana was a bespectacled bookworm, trotting out Renaissance clichés on order and male mastery from her reading, preserved from caricature by Francesca Annis's natural charm and poise. Both she and Judi Dench (Adriana) had suddenly to switch off their performances of the text itself in mid-scene and concentrate on singing; these moments did nothing to support their interpretations; I thought they strained them unnecessarily. Smaller roles stood even less chance of being sustained: the Duke was a Greek military dictator, switching from declarations of the law over a public address system to private sympathy for Aegeon; but he made absolutely nothing of the moment-to-moment bewilderment of the finale, which a succession of very human Dukes in the Williams version made much more of than was allowed to emerge here. Mr Nunn certainly appeared to 'give the audience a really good time', but I thought he did so by imposed routines rather than, as the Williams production did, by emphasizing Shakespeare's distinctive humanizing of his rather inhuman Plautine models.


Adrian Noble • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1983


Noble's RSC production of The Comedy of Errors, his first staging of a fully comedic work, received widely contrasting reviews. Robert Cushman called the attempt "catastrophic," and complained bitterly about Noble's loose treatment of the text and emphasis on physical humor. On the other hand, James Fenton praised the playing, calling it "some of the best verse-speaking we have had at Stratford in recent years." The set was minimal, comprising a white semi-circular shell with black surround, two chairs, and a pit which, while housing the five-piece orchestra, also served as both obstacle and resting place for the actors. The music, written by Nigel Hess, was a potpourri of jazz, ragtime, operetta, and circus music. The costumes, by Ultz, were noted for their bold color and style—the Dromios were presented as Emmett Kelly-style clowns, the Antipholi with bright blue faces, the Courtezan as "Mistress Satan in the flesh," and Luciana as a pink, ruffled clown with a hairdo that was described as everything from a large ice-cream cone to a gigantic phallus. Performances of individual players, while not outstanding, were generally considered competent, and Joseph O'Connor as Egeon received special note for his handling of some of the play's longer speeches. Upon leaving Stratford, the production moved to the Barbican Theatre, London, in 1984.


Robert Cushman (review date 14 August 1983)

SOURCE: "Errors of Comedy," in The Observer, August 14, 1983, p. 26.

When he was very young, Kenneth Tynan laid down that no really first-rate director could be at home with broad comedy. He was wrong, of course, but I find his opinion of some comfort when considering Adrian Noble's Strat-ford production of The Comedy of Errors. Mr Noble is a director of proven brilliance, but his first major attempt at drama designed to provoke laughter is catastrophic.

There are some touches that are truly Noble. One is the lost, questing arrival in Ephesus of the visiting Antipholus and Dromio. Coming through a door in the white wall of Ultz's set, they appear dazed, almost blind. This of course is not a funny moment, nor meant to be. When the farce begins—when master and man are mistaken for their respective twins—Mr Noble works diligently at it. He must have done no end of research into traditional comic routines.

Some of it showed in his production of King Lear with Antony Sher's clown-compendium performance as the Fool. The one thing that performance was not was amusing; nor did it need to be. But The Comedy of Errors does need, and this production is all technique and no humour. It keeps stepping on its own laughs. Blows and pratfalls, of which there are many, are accompanied by tympani-rolls in the orchestra. The pulling of a Dromio's nose provokes ruder noises in the pit. Pedantry, the RSC's recurring vice, here takes a new form. This, the production seems to be saying, is clowning; aren't you impressed?

Design and music run the show. Nigel Hess draws for his tunes, pleasingly enough, on Scott Joplin, Vincent Youmans and the Keystone Kops. In the scene of Pinch the conjuror he takes over (or the play throws in the sponge) and we get a number. Pinch is painted yellow, and the text does indeed say that he has a saffron face. But it makes no mention of the Dromios having red noses, or of the Antipholi being blue. They look like the Atlantines (who, old Eagle readers will remember, were the good Venusians oppressed by the green Treens). Farce works by putting recognisable people in extreme situations. I don't recognise anyone with a blue face. I even jib at a heroine (Jane Booker) whose hair has been tied up like an ice-cream cone, however stylish.

The performances display some skill and, in the case of Paul Greenwood, who plays a scene hanging upside-down from a window, intrepidity. Peter McEnery is brisk, Henry Goodman earthy, Richard O'Callaghan nicely woeful and Zoë Wanamaker, trimly volcanic, nearly creates a character. Joseph O'Conor and Timothy Kightley are solid elders. There are some gracenotes: the final reconciliation, and an earlier rapprochement between master and servant when the former has beaten the latter and, penitent, gives him a cuddle.

There is also some atrocious verse-speaking, especially from the Duke. While they wait to mature into comedy directors (and it is not just Mr Noble's problem—John Caird with The Twin Rivals is about the only young director in or out of the RSC to have displayed any sustained lightness of touch), Stratford chiefs could practise counting the number of beats in an iambic pentameter. They used to know how.

James Fenton (review date 14 August 1983)

SOURCE: "The Furthest Shores of Avon," in The Sunday Times, London, August 14, 1983, p. 35.

Stratford's main theatre, equipped with orchestra pit and cyclorama wall, looks like an old German theatre—indeed it looks like the Berliner Ensemble's establishment. This is appropriate for a production of The Comedy of Errors in Brechtian music-hall style, using genuine clowning techniques, white-face make up (and even black-face make up for the one black face in the cast).

The point about the play is that without real clowning it is not really funny. It is obvious that in the original performance there would have been real clowns playing the two Dromios, and that without them no production can claim to be authentic. Yet all too often, when Shakespeare calls for a clown, what you get on the modern stage is a kind of whimsical and tiresome impression of what a clown might have been like if only we knew. Henry Goodman and Richard O'Callaghan make sure that they do not tax our patience in this way, but instead make us laugh.

The director, Adrian Noble, is generous with directorial ideas to speed us laughing through the plot, but the idea I liked best of all was that of making the actors speak the verse pantomime style, with a blatant emphasis on simple rhythms and rhymes. This is some of the best verse-speaking we have had at Stratford in recent years.

Paul Greenwood and Peter McEnery play the brothers Antipholus. Zoe Wanamaker is a splendid Adriana. The designer is the crucial Ultz.

Stanley Wells (review date 19 August 1983)

SOURCE: "The Errors of Comedy," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4194, 19 August 1983, p. 881.

It is surprising that so modest a masterpiece as The Comedy of Errors should prove as resistant to successful theatrical realization as its stage history suggests, and as the present production—often brilliant—demonstrates. Shakespeare's shortest play, it has frequently been padded out with additional material, from Frederick Reynolds's "operatic" adaptation of 1819 to Trevor Nunn's RSC version of 1976 (which won the Ivor Novello award for the best London musical of 1977). Adrian Noble resists this temptation.

What seems to cause more serious problems is the play's stylistic range. Its tragi-comic structure encompasses farce, the comedy of idiosyncratic character, displays of wit, corrective comedy, and the tensions and consolations of romance. Presumably it is neo-classical tendencies in our directors that lead them to narrow the play's idiom, generally in favour of farce (a little odd considering that this is Shakespeare's only play to be specifically entitled a "comedy").

This production opens beguilingly. As we enter the auditorium a five-piece band half-visible in a well that has been cut into the thrust stage is playing 1920s-ish tunes. The music (by Nigel Hess) is delightful throughout; a different band plays no less merrily by the fountains in the foyer during the interval (which according to the programme does not take place). A band in the pit takes us back a quarter of a century to the days when a stage curtain rose and fell. But on the stage itself is a semi-circular white set, taking us back only one-eighth of a century, to Peter Brook's [1970] production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare's play opens seriously, with Egeon's narrative of his shipwreck; but Adrian Noble makes us confident that the play's title is no deceit by giving us an opening mime which takes us into the world of circus (shades again of Peter Brook) and of silent film. Characters of the play appear, bowler-hatted, and carrying umbrellas, reading The Financial Times (a topical touch on the day of its publication after a lapse caused by industrial inaction), and variously wearing white-face, black-face, blue-face, clown-face, baggy trousers, cloth caps, false noses, masks and ludicrously long shoes. Immediately identifiable is the Duke, in purple robes and gold coronet, straight out of The Young Visiters. Egeon (Joseph O'Conor) speaks seriously and well, overcoming the handicap of a blue nose, a clown's make-up, and the exaggerated reactions of his hearers.

As the action develops, the same tendencies recur. The production draws on the traditions of circus, pantomime, musical comedy, silent film, and farce. There is a comic policeman on a bicycle (yes, again). Whenever (as often) anyone slaps, hits, or kicks anyone else, his actions are underscored by bumps, thumps, whistles, hooters and other sonic appurtenances. A moving platform on which Adriana and Luciana make their entries and exits by descending and ascending recalls the trapezes of Brook's Dream; but that production had a narrative clarity and a trust in the dialogue that are lacking here. Admittedly, the verbal games of The Comedy of Errors are more dated, more obscurely allusive than any in the Dream; but anyone wondering whether the dialogue is worth listening to (if only to discover what is happening) will find it overlaid with visual gags: Antipholus of Syracuse speaks one of his more important speeches hanging upside down from a window; underscored with music: this is a literally melodramatic production in which few of the major speeches are not accompanied throughout; or adorned with labouredly illustrative comic business.

Not all the comedy is obtrusive. There are inventive touches: after Luce has grabbed Dromio's balls through the letterbox of the door, "if thy name be called Luce [loose], Luce," acquires new meaning; and the door itself is the object of admirably entertaining business as it passes from the shoulders of one Dromio to another without either of them appearing to realize it has moved. Peter McEnery brings incisive elegance to Antipholus of Ephesus; as Dromio of Syracuse, Richard O'Callaghan gets deserved laughs by playing his description of the kitchen wench who seeks his favours for verbal effect, and will get better ones when he has refined his timing.

But too often the production method turns the characters into two-dimensional stereotypes. Zoë Wanamaker could be an excellent Adriana were she not reduced to a dowdy shrew. Luciana (Jane Booker) loses all reality as a pinkfrilled circus ballerina with a high, cone-shaped blonde top-knot; and this stylization destroys the play's romantic interest. Dr Pinch is a mere grotesque, his big scene travestied as usual, this time by being turned into an ill-sung, quasi-operatic set-piece. Joseph O'Conor almost redeems the final scene by the genuineness of his appeal to his unknowing son, but the limited range of the production denies him his full effect.

Clifford Williams directed this play in 1962, also for the RSC, with a relaxed ease which allowed full expression to its varied styles. Comedy was unforced, proceeding naturally from character; seriousness was not portentous, but provided a proper ground-bass to the joyful conclusion. The present production, rapturously received, shows every sign of being a popular hit, but will do nothing to erode the classical status of Williams's version.

Jill Burrows (review date 16 September 1983)

SOURCE: "Toehold on Truth," in The Times Educational Supplement, No. 3507, 16 September 1983, p. 24.

"This is fairyland," says Dromio of Syracuse, and the RSC responds by allowing a designer to run riot. Ultz's costumes erupt where the circus meets the stock exchange. Luciana is got up as a poodle-trimmed meringue and merchants sport pin-striped tights. The Dromios are classic red-nosed, raincoated and baggy-check-panted clowns. All are blessed (or cursed) by variously successful clown-type make-up.

Ephesus (like all good farce venues) has been diagnosed by Adrian Noble as irredeemably bourgeois. The threats to civilization (more correctly, to civilized living) arise from the apparent abuse of the bonds of sex and commerce. (It is no accident that the rift between Syracuse and Ephesus has been caused by trading malpractice and that it is the sundering of marital partners [Egeon and Emilia] that has separated the pairs of twins.) The misunderstandings and mistakings are bad enough when the marriage of Adriana and Antipholus of Ephesus is jeopardized; the can of worms really hits the fan once the business world is thrown into disarray. To set it right sex-and-commerce incarnate (the Courtezan) and its opposite (the Abbess) will be required.

The acting style prints everything in capital letters. Complexity is discouraged. Every thought, every action has its personalized sound or lighting cue (not always on target or on time). Some of the principals, notably Paul Green-wood and Richard O'Callaghan, survive these constraints better than others. The trick is to keep a toehold on truth. No matter how inflated the performance, it's essential to preserve the initial impulse. It's a technique perfected by Zoë Wanamaker as Adriana. Less pinioned than some by Ultz's ministrations—Chanel suit, crushed-strawberry extremities, pierrot tear—she is free to launch full-bloodedly into tragedy and tantrums, with a histrionic, house-high anguish that is rooted in a desperate, truthful pain.

There is a nice differentiation in the two master-servant relationships. The gentler Antipholus (Greenwood, of Syracuse) has the hangdoglike, devoted, easily wounded Dromio (O'Callaghan), while life with the volatile, raffish, bullying, pogo-tempered Antipholus (Peter McEnery, of Ephesus) has toughened his Dromio into a defensively canny bobber-and-weaver.

When the physical riot does proceed directly from emotional confusion the effect is exhilarating: both funny and true. But in the early acts here there was a hint of the heresy that exposition is boring and of the stand-up comic's smug and irritating "You're really going to love this one".

Richard Findlater (review date October 1983)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Plays & Players, No. 361, October, 1983, pp. 22-3.

Carmine-rosed, orange-gloved, hiding underneath outsize tweed caps and heel-length macs, the two Dromios—continually amazed and assaulted—scurry volubly around the Stratford stage in the latest version of what the programme cautiously describes as 'possibly' Shakespeare's earliest play, directed by Adrian Noble with irresistible overdrive.

If not quite the funniest of Dromios, they are—in spite of their modern circus-tat—among the more credibly Elizabethan: when, for instance, they fart noisily at each other through Adriana's door (a bit of coarse theatre which, however authentic and textually warrantable, would surely have been vetoed by the later Shakespeare when he had managerial power); and, thanks in the main to their enveloping headgear, they are probably the least distinguishable of all Shakespeare's twins in performance, although alert playgoers will note the colour-differences in ties, suits and theatrical impact. (Full marks to Richard O'Callaghan of Syracuse, allowing for his greater opportunities—and for his inexperience in clowning and Shakespeare until this 1983 RSC season.) Such similarities—and crudities—do help apprentice audiences to tolerate, even to enjoy, the absurdities of an apprentice play nearly 400 years older than they are.

I see no reason why, in order to make this play more accessible, the Dromios should not be simplified into near-clowns, although the livery of mute circus funnymen has little connection with the Tudor world of word-twisting comic servants or (as in the same director's King Lear) court fools. And, because The Comedy of Errors needs all the help it can get from a good director, I have little objection to the ways in which Mr Noble has pushed the clowning metaphor to the limit (and beyond). By and large, the text in use is treated with the respect owed by a 'theatre of language' (on which the RSC prides itself) which has also once again shown itself to be a theatre of movement, music and, well, fun as well.

The search for fun is, admittedly, a bit frenetic and the discoveries are not always surprising. In 16th century Ephesus, as staged at Stratford, the citizens combine City bowlers and briefcases with humbug-striped tights, football boots or flip-flaps, lurid gloves and circus make-up. Luciana wears a pink-frilled clownish costume with a tall white, spiralling cone-wig reminiscent of eccentric circus artistes a century ago. Among the more conventionally attired characters are the Antipholus twins, who sport elegantly matching grey suits, white ties, white shoes—and blue faces. At the heart of it all, on a bare stage in a newly-made orchestra pit, are five musicians. In constant perie from Keystone cop chases, gung-ho dancing and wobbling cyclists they pump out a pot-pourri of echoes from music hall, film, melodrama, operetta, Palm Court and the pops of yesteryear, with tear-jerking solos, comic whistles, percussion galore and a great deal of hurry music. At the end they are reinforced by a fancy-dress 'combo' which plays for the foyer fountain before the show starts and during the interval. Mysteriously, this interval—proscribed by the programme—was inserted at the last moment, thereby saving the audience some discomfort and helping the RSC to pay for what sounds like an expensive production (from the indispensible takings at the bars).

This pervasive sound-scare (by Nigel Hess) illustrates the continuing tend at the national theatres of injecting music into classic texts to underline, point up or even send up the words and to work as of the overall design. The set (by Ultz) is blankly austere and stripped for action: a tall, curved, white wall in a black surround, with two chairs. Colour comes from the costumes, the music, the language and the visible audience. On each side of the stage area the token ministers of spectators so frequently paraded at Stratford, sometimes with a wet-blanketing effect disproving the theoretical justifications for their often distractingly self-conscious presence. Here, in a production which so determinedly aspires to the condition of music hall, continually buttonholed by both sets of twins (Paul Green-wood, in particular, being a master of collusive charm), they come at last into their own: conditioned by contiguity to laugh, whenever they possibly can, at the more presentable exhumations from the graveyard of Elizabethan one-liners as long as there is enough music, movement and comic business to keep them involved in the situations of the play and the athletic super-text conjured up by the company.

Among the quieter pleasures of that super-text, for example, is the scene where the Syracusan Antipholus, hanging head-downwards from Adriana's window with casual aplomb as if this were the most natural way of making an exit, watches Luciana advancing gracefully to his rescue with a stepladder. Striking attitudes as she goes, to the kind of marzipan music inseparable from conjuring acts, she reaches the white wall and climbs towards Antipholus (Paul Greenwood), who with tentative longing stretches out his hand towards the summit of her bizarre blond cone. That gesture remains more vividly in the memory than his later heartfelt declaration of love to the lady, partly because she looks so improbable an inamorata; and it also seems characteristic of this production that his brother (Peter McEnery) is vocally at his most emphatic and effective in the description of Pinch, a stress for which there seems to be all the less theatrical reason when the lines are virtually contradicted by the conjuror's appearance—mortar-boarded, taloned, predominantly yellow and almost dionysiacally gleeful.

Yet, although this Comedy of Errors may scarcely rival the milestone-productions of 1938 (Komisarjevsky) of 1962 (Clifford Williams) and of 1976 (Trevor Nunn), it is an admirably inventive, resourceful and enjoyable demonstration of teamwork by the RSC. The company has clearly benefited from the coaching of Ben Benison, who is credited in the programme with Movement; they work together with unflagging acrobatic and balletic energy, and their verbal timing is orchestrated with fine professionalism. In my view, there are three outstanding performances: Zoe Wanamaker (Adriana), Paul Greenwood and his Dromio, Richard O'Callaghan, who all seem in relaxed command of the stage, the character, the business, the language, and the audience. But I enjoyed the acting of Peter McEnery and Henry Goodman as the other twins, and Jane Booker as Luciana. John Dicks (doubling as Solimus and Pinch), Emma Watson, Sheila Ballantine, Paul Clayton, Timothy Kightley and Geoffrey Beevers all contributed to the success of this production in its own carefully hectic kind.

C. W. Whitworth (review date October 1983)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Cahiers Elisabéthains, No. 24, October 1983, pp. 116-18.

The legacy of two famous and brilliant Stratford productions of The Comedy of Errors weighs heavily upon any new attempt. Clifford Williams's 1962 production, still being revived ten years later, was one of the most acclaimed RSC productions ever. Trevor Nunn's musical extravaganza of 1976 (Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Roger Rees, Francesca Annis, et al), also filmed for television, was another great success. And, if one cares to go further back in Stratford annals, there was Komisarjevsky's classic of 1938. As the standing ovation continued on first preview night of the current production, an usherette was heard to express relief on behalf of the company: "They were so worried. They've been living in the shadow of the last [1976] one."

No need to have worried. This production has a distinct identity of its own, is overflowing with ideas and energy, and will live in the memory alongside its illustrious predecessors. It will probably be either loved or loathed, for there are no half-measures about it. It is, unashamedly, a show. One recognizes its debts to past productions, a gesture here, a bit of business there, the now-standard musical setting of Dr Pinch's incantation number. But Adrian Noble's enchanted Ephesus is a circus world, a child's story-book land. Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Pierrot, Coco the clown, Charlie Chaplin, a bobby on a bike, citizens in blackface and whiteface, bowler hats and moustaches (and grey business suits), a duke in purple-and-ermine robe and crown (over a grey business suit and college tie), a saffron-faced Dr Pinch in tails and mortar-board—St Paul's Ephesus, with its exorcists and practitioners of curious arts, was a drab seaside village to this.

A bare, white semi-circular shell, three storeys high, is the set. A pit orchestra (plaudits to the percussionist-cum-special effects man) occupies a real pit, surrounded by playing area on four sides, and on one occasion, several characters sit with their feet dangling down onto the piano keyboard, producing random chords; on another, in the midst of a chase, Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse, hemmed in on both sides, leap across the abyss. Music has become, in recent years, an outstanding feature of RSC productions. One recalls, for example, Terry Hands's As You Like It and Much Ado and Trevor Nunn's All's Well in that regard. This Comedy of Errors is no exception. The five-piece pit orchestra works overtime (even more so on 15 September when, technical problems having postponed the curtain for more than an hour, they cheerfully entertained the equally cheerful audience). Ragtime, jazz, circus tunes and schmaltz set the rapidly-changing moods. Before the performance, during the interval—there is one, despite the programme's bold-faced declaration to the contrary—a foyer combo plays, and then, in what is becoming a RSC signature, joins the cast onstage for the finale.

The Dromios are clowns, with Emmett Kelly faces including red plastic noses which beep (via the percussionist) when pinched, and which must seriously impede respiration. They wear baggy plaid suits with matching caps, the slightly different colours of the plaids being the only variation. Richard O'Callaghan's Dromio of Syracuse is an immensely energetic, nervous character, obsessed with witches and demons. In his increasing bewilderment and incomprehension at being beaten for doing just what his master tells him to do, he breaks down in tears, moving the entire audience to sympathetic sighs. Henry Goodman, brilliant as the hoofer and wouldbe comic Harry in The Time of Your Life (a role created by Gene Kelly) at The Other Place, plays a more lugubrious Dromio of Ephesus, breaking mechanically into a dance step under the conjuring of Pinch. For both these Dromios, the gratuitously vulgar farting duel through the letter slot in the portable door, in the otherwise extremely funny Act III, scene 1, seems slightly ill-conceived.

The Antipholuses are identified as twins by their bright blue faces, the subject of much speculation in post-performance discussions. Perhaps the clue is Antipholus of Syracuse's line I to the world am like a drop of water in 1.2, or the dominant sea and water imagery in general. It may be a generic trait: Egeon has a blue nose. With their identical grey suits and white gloves and shoes, it establishes twinship in two actors, Paul Greenwood and Peter McEnery, who bear less natural resemblance than, say, Roger Rees and Mike Gwilym, their predecessors in the 1976 production. These two convey quite clearly the differences in temperament of the twins. Peter McEnery is particularly fine as Antipholus of Ephesus, revealing a comic talent unsuspected perhaps by RST habitués who may have seen him in such roles as Pericles, Suffolk (Henry VI), Albie Sachs, or Brutus in this season's Julius Caesar.

Luciana (Jane Booker) is pale yellow (golden), wears a pink ruffled clown outfit, and an extraordinary blond hairdo, spiralling up to a point some fifteen inches above her head. Unicorn? Ice cream cone? Or seashell? Adriana (Zoë Wanamaker) wears a rather dowdy suit over shocking pink arms, hands and legs. Miss Wanamaker, who may have been influenced by Judi Dench's Adriana of 1976, has, like Miss Dench, the ability to vary the timbre of her voice, and she uses it to considerable effect here. The genuine anguish felt by Adriana, admittedly muted by the dominant comic-farcical mood of the inner play, is glimpsed. Ought we to be told and retold so emphatically that something more than a diner intime has transpired between Adriana and the wrong Antipholus? Shakespeare certainly does not do so. Emma Watson's Courtezan, who rises from a trap pat upon Antipholus's cue, Some blessed power deliver us from hence!, is attired in bright red leotard with her face made up to the same hue, black stockings and wig, and a very tight white corset with garters—Mistress Satan in the flesh.

I have dwelt upon costumes at some length because, in the absence of any set to speak of, they carry the sole visual dimension of the production. This is a fantasy world in which both the Roman comic farce of twin masters and servants and the errors that ensue from their all being in the same place, and the mouldy old romance tale of hapless Egeon and his long-lost family, are enacted and eventually converge. The director's and designer's conception is fine. The execution frequently goes joyfully and heedlessly over the top. There is simply too much going on. Gimmickry rules. A lift, the sort used for washing sky-scraper windows and in which Adriana and Luciana make their first entrance, broke down, and the actors concerned, deprived of this eye-catching device, had to fall back on old-fashioned acting. Very well, we may say, and a good thing too. But not when they were not prepared for it, when the production was geared to one spectacular moment after another. If any of Shakespeare's plays invite such extravagance (and if in any it is more pardonable than in others), it is those in which farce and slapstick-style humour are inherent to a preponderant degree. The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew (which have more than that in common) are the two chief examples of Shakespeare in the farcical vein, but neither is pure farce throughout. From the beginning of his career, Shakespeare delighted in yoking together (sometimes violently) diverse literary and dramatic kinds, the result, for better or worse, being uniquely his. Adrian Noble's production does attempt to distinguish the scenes of wonder, romance, pathos and lyricism from the farce. When Antipholus of Syracuse, victim of the first 'error', mistaking the local Dromio for his twin, recollects the reputation of Ephesus for sorcery, cozenage and many suchlike liberties of sin (I. 2) the white light fades to blue and eerie music is heard. When Adriana mourns her husband's apparent infidelity (II. 1), a slow, sad melody, the sort that soap operas employ at such moments, is heard. The wooing of Luciana is accompanied by saccharine mood music, as Antipholus hangs upside down (his world becoming more and more that way) from a window, speaking quatrains to Luciana who stands on a ladder that she has carried on and erected to a toy doll's ballet routine.

At the end, the now statutory RSC all-in dance number concludes with the unrolling of an immense tablecloth from under the Abbess's voluminous blue habit. It is stretched the entire width of the forestage and the company lines up behind it as if for the 'gossips' feast'. After so long grief, such nativity—the rebirth and reunion are celebrated to suitably exuberant music.

But despite the laudable attempt to preserve those variegated strands of wonder, mystery, weirdness, romance, lyricism that make the piece, not a novice's servile imitation of Plautus, but an unmistakably Shakespearian comic romance, they are simply overwhelmed by the nonstop barrage of gimmickry, buffoonery, vaudeville gags and Keystone Cops high jinks. But if in the theatre, as opposed to the Eng. Lit. classroom, sheer theatricality, clarity of speech, boundless energy and wholehearted commitment from all performers count for anything, this is an unforgettable show.

Roger Warren (review date Winter 1983)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 4, Winter, 1983, pp. 455-56.

At Stratford in 1982, Adrian Noble presented the Fool in King Lear as half music-hall comedian, half circus clown: in 1983, he applied this treatment to all the characters in The Comedy of Errors. Like the Fool, the Dromio twins wore white-face makeup and false red noses, overcoats and baggy trousers. The other characters also wore clown makeup, and performed circus and vaudeville routines to a garish musical commentary from a stage band that played from an orchestra pit sunk into the forestage, as if at a Victorian music-hall. This band officiously underlined stage business (especially beatings) or such changes of mood as those in Adriana's impassioned speech to the wrong Antipholus, and they provided a saccharine accompaniment to Antipholus of Syracuse's initial feeling of dis-orientation and to his declaration of love for Luciana.

As so often, the Pinch episode was turned into a musical extravaganza, this time actually conducted by a Pinch in white tie and tails; he also wore yellow makeup, quite literally "this companion with the saffron face." Adriana and Luciana descended on a metal platform such as window-cleaners use on high-rise buildings, and they took Antipholus of Syracuse back with them to "dine above." Dromio of Syracuse guarded a portable door, so that Antipholus of Ephesus' attempts to enter his house could be seen from many angles, the two Dromios being face to face on either side of it during their main altercation.

The routines and the jumble of costumes suggested Komisarjevsky's famous 1938 Stratford production, but the resemblance was probably only superficial; for whereas Komisarjevsky's farcical treatment was by all accounts a full-scale debunking of the play (sending up the final family reunion, for instance), this one was merely the ostentatious surface of an orthodox reading of the characters and incidents by a particularly strong cast.

The discrepancy between the clown makeup and the human substance of the performances was noticeable from the very first scene. Joseph O'Conor established the pathos of Egeon through his expert handling of his long speeches, the supposed difficulties of which simply vanished. And John Dicks, although saddled with pantomime ermine-trimmed purple robes, immaculately charted the Duke's development from judicial sternness to sympathy for Egeon's plight: it came as no surprise at the end that this gentle Duke should do what he had earlier declared was impossible and spare Egeon without any ransom. The greatest indignities were heaped upon poor Luciana, who was tricked out in pierrot costume, her hair piled up like a gigantic phallus, a grotesque rosebud smile daubed onto her lips. Her sophisticated advice to be "secret-false" had to be delivered to an Antipholus of Syracuse who was hanging upside down by his knees from a window: Jane Booker and Paul Greenwood then played their love scene perched on either side of a stepladder, and managed (just) to bring it off.

It was virtually impossible for Mr. Greenwood to persuade us that this Ephesus was a real town of sorcerers and witches when it was so obviously a fantasy world of circus clowns and music-hall comedians, and he himself had a blue face; but he refused to allow the varied emotions of Antipholus of Syracuse—fear, amazement, rage, smugness—to be submerged beneath the preposterous makeup. His would have been a notable account of the role if it had been given a context which allowed any scope to the expression of human feeling. Both he and Peter McEnery as Antipholus of Ephesus used a ringing, confident delivery which suggested the similarity of the twins much more effectively than their blue faces. Least affected by asinine business, Zoë Wanamaker caught both Adriana's sympathetic and unsympathetic aspects by lightning changes of manner from the dulcet warmth of the loving wife to the bawling of the fishwife, alternating between violent abuse against the Abbess in one line to gracious courtesy toward the Duke in the next. Although the rather forced pathos of Egeon's reference to the "drizzled snow" of "this grainèd face of mine" sounded uncomfortably like a description of his white clown's face, there was genuine pathos in the final reunion, and real joy in the Abbess' "such Nativity"]

The neatest touch in the whole production, however, was the treatment of Dromio of Syracuse's faded jesting about Time and baldness in II. ii. Antipholus of Syracuse had once again been furiously beating Dromio, who became very miserable; with a typically swift change of mood, Antipholus repented of his unkindness and sympathetically encouraged Dromio ("Let's hear it") to perform his "turn" about Time and baldness. In the process, they made the obscure jokes clear. This moment of human sympathy, almost a minor-key version of the exchanges between Lear and the Fool, was worth all the circus routines in the world. It demonstrated that Adrian Noble is perfectly capable of interpreting the text; what is so depressing is his apparent preference for plastering grotesque gags and ostentatious effects all over it.

Giles Gordon (review date 10 December 1983)

SOURCE: "Shakespearian," in The Spectator, Vol. 251, No. 8109, December 10, 1983, pp. 33-4.

Half a dozen of the Bard's plays, notably Twelfth Night, make much ado about twins. The Comedy of Errors is the one with two sets, the Antipholuses—of Syracuse (Paul Greenwood) and of Ephesus (Peter McEnery)—and their servants, the Dromios (Richard O'Callaghan and Henry Goodman). It's thought to be Shakespeare's earliest script (1592) and the young dramatist was prodigal with his source material. Indeed, the play is based on not one but two plays by Plautus. Adrian Noble's disappointingly un-funny, austere and cerebral production doesn't bear many of the hallmarks of this director's work, although the Dromios wear red noses. 'Movement' is credited to Ben Benison, and 'clowning' is the order of the day at Ephesus.

The orchestra pit is cut into and out of the forestage and the frenetic action takes place around it: Nigel Hess's rumbustious score not only punctuates and accompanies the text but insists, whether in moments of comedy, tragedy, farce or romance, how the audience should react. Ultz's carnival costumes and body painting likewise define and circumscribe the characters. Zoë Wanamaker and Jane Booker, with her hair styled as an ice cream cornet, are passionate as the sisters, Adriana and Luciana. Compared with the last two brilliant RSC (Royal School for Clowns?) productions which encouraged the actors to explore confused, recognisable characters, this one is more likely to appeal to sober theatregoers who admire Marcel Marceau. Stylish and clever as it is, it's too schematic and fastidious for me.

Martin Hoyle (review date June 1984)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Plays & Players, No. 369, June, 1984, pp. 26-7.

To my astonishment I sat at the Barbican actually reassessing this early work [The Comedy of Errors]. Not my favourite Shakespeare, having sat through some toe-curling productions. I wonder how seriously we should take the supposed 'serious' start and end. The escalation of mistaken identities and confusions between two sets of identical twins does not accord happily with any tragical intentions and the resulting family reunion is a little too neat for my edification. The R.S.C. Stratford transfer, of a play with which they have had great success in the past, is in many ways unexpected. The first scene, with the long speech from Aegeon under sentence of death, is played for laughs. Citizens made up as clowns provide a chorus to his story of family loss. The design by Ultz is indicative of director Adrian Noble's approach. All the cast are different sorts of clowns, giving force to blue-faced Antipholus' description about Ephesus being 'full of cozenage, as nimble jugglers that deceive the eye'. The white semi-circular setting and props are minimal. The accent is firmly on a physical approach backed up with plenty of incidental music from a band in a downstage pit. This collaboration reaches its climax in the Dr. Pinch scene, which is all sung in various pastiches, and includes a good performance by John Dicks as the yellow faced magician, also doubling as the Duke.

The concept was splendidly handled, not least because it could have got very out of control. The slapstick element did not detract overall from the speech which, when it was delivered, was clear, well spoken and amusing. The play always seems to cry out for some kind of help, regardless of those critics who want it straight. Consequently Noble has devised lots of extra business, but it is good and well executed so you do not feel cheated or that it is a case of severe over embellishment. He has also thought the devices through thoroughly. So that Paul Goodman as Antipholus of Syracuse can hang upside down out of a window and Jane Booker as Luciana can do a simple ballet to provide the stepladder to rescue him. As in all good routines the show must be slick, and the pacing is excellent, helped by good coloured lighting changes and no cluttering scenery. There is also some exuberant playing. I particularly admired Richard O'Callaghan's Dromio—he is putting in some excellent performances—and Zoe Wanamaker's Adriana, lowered on a steel balcony (an irresistible entrance!) is full of jealous desperation mixed with excess. She totters around wrapped in a tight black sheath dress falling flat on her cocktail pink face in front of the Duke to petition him.

By such an approach the play must reach its audience. It brought back the old RSC style that seemed to celebrate every performance at the Aldwych (even though each show seemed to end in a dance!) . This current production hardly sits but fizzes happily and joyfully on the Barbican stage.

Nicholas Shrimpton (review date 1984)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1982-3," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 37, 1984, pp. 163-73.

Adrian Noble's The Comedy of Errors marked the arrival on the Stratford stage of some post-structuralist assumptions. At first sight the ruthless defamiliarizing of the play—most of the characters in some form of clown costume, the Antipholus brothers established as twins simply by having their faces painted blue, an arbitrary use of a flying platform—seemed Brechtian. But there was no social message on offer. Meanings of any kind were steadily resisted and in their place we had what Barthes might call the play of signifiers.

The withdrawal from interpretation which such techniques reflect began, in Shakespeare criticism, with John Holloway's attack on the treatment of plays as 'a fount of … moral informativeness' in 1961 [The Story of the Night]. It reached a peak with the appearance of Richard Levin's New Readings vs. Old Plays in 1979. And, as Norman Rabkin pointed out in his book Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, Levin's questioning of 'thematism' in the interpretation of Jacobean drama coincided with a more general intellectual crisis:

The reader-response theories argued in various ways by such critics as Stanley Fish and Norman Holland call into question the power of an imaginative work to elicit a uniform response from its audience; Jacques Derrida and his deconstructive allies see language and art as so intractably self-reflexive as to be incapable of analyzable significance; Harold Bloom argues that all reading is misreading, that one reads well only to find oneself in the mirror.

Such shifts of opinion in literary criticism were bound, sooner or later, to affect that most practical branch of the trade, theatrical direction. The Royal Shakespeare Company's programme for The Comedy of Errors was generously equipped with background material on the links between the play and St Paul's epistle to the Ephesians. The production itself had no truck with such traditional interpretative techniques. Whether we wished it or not, Adrian Noble thrust us into a new era in the presentation of Shakespeare's plays.…

Tricks and jokes … in Adrian Noble's The Comedy of Errors… were the whole point. It's not quite true to say that every character was a clown—Adriana, for no very obvious reason, was a twentieth-century housewife. But she was the exception which proves the rule. On the whole the director who had discreetly imported the spirit of Grock to his production of King Lear in the previousseason proceeded on the principle of 'Send in more clowns'.

Critics (though not, it must be said, audiences) responded to this decision with irritation. Robert Cushman made the case against the production most eloquently [The Observer, 14 August 1983] accusing it of pedantry: 'This, the production seems to be saying, is clowning; aren't you impressed?' Certainly, it was not as funny as it might have been had the jokes been less forced. The style was pushed beyond farce to circus and the pace was frantic. Every tumble or pratfall was underlined with a drumroll or a swanee whistle, every serious speech sent up with music from the pit orchestra. Dr Pinch's scene was played as a full-scale cod opera. Though Richard O'Callaghan and Henry Goodman clowned legitimately, and very skillfully, as the two Dromios, they had too much competition to shine out as they should.

The intention, however, was probably less to make us laugh than to shake us out of our habitual expectations of the text. This was not realism—the familiar simulacrum of human behaviour which a willing suspension of disbelief allows us briefly to accept as life itself. Instead it was language at play, insisting on its artificiality and perpetually postponing significance. The actors were mouthpieces rather than characters. The action was a string of gags.

The most vivid illustration of this process was the treatment of the relationship between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciana. Sometimes stressed as a fragment of romantic comedy in what is otherwise a heartless Roman farce, it was here ruthlessly undercut. Antipholus did his wooing in act 3, scene 2 while hanging upside down by his knees from a second floor window. Luciana responded by performing some acrobatic tricks with a step-ladder. Zoë Wanamaker as Adriana and Joseph O'Conor as Aegeon attempted, doggedly, to establish character and express emotion. A tide of slapstick washed their humane endeavours away. James Fenton, in The Sunday Times [14 August 1983], wondered what the consequences would be of applying the same technique to Hamlet. Unless the fashion for the nouvelle critique undergoes a very sudden reversal, it cannot be long before we know.


Robert Woodruff • Goodman Theatre, Chicago • 1983, 1987


A production in which the text was extensively cut, altered, and subverted, Woodruff's Comedy of Errors was more notable for the acrobatic skills of its performers than for its presentation of Shakespeare's comedy. Turning Ephesus into a circus in which one needed to be able to tell jokes and juggle simply to survive, Woodruff recruited comic performance artists The Flying Karamazov Brothers (as the two sets of twins and the added role of Shakespeare himself) and professional clown Avner the Eccentric (as Dr. Pinch in an extended form) to skillfully create an authentic vaudeville production. Even the programme was designed to provoke mirth: on the cover, the title was given as Shakespeare's The Three Sisters, which was crossed out and replaced with the correct designation; inside, readers were informed that "the plot has something to do with twins and juggling." Critics complained that not only was the original text lost amidst the frenzied atmosphere, but there was also a "remorselessness" about the irreverence toward the original work. Woodruff defended his interpretation, claiming the production was "in the spirit in which [The Comedy of Errors] was born." The set by David Gropman was minimal, giving maximum space to the circus performers. Susan Hilferty's costumes consisted of various colors, shapes, and textures, the most notable being that of Alec Willows (as both Angelo and the Second Merchant), which was literally split down the middle—one side as Harlequin, the other as leather-clad punk. Critics censured the acting generally, but reserved modest praise for Sam Williams as a competent Dromio of Syracuse; similarly, Sophie Schwab's Adriana was seen as the best synthesis of Shakespeare and circus. The production ran for six weeks in Chicago and was revived for the Olympic festivities in Los Angeles in 1984 and a New York run at the Beaumont Theater in 1987.


Albert E. Kalson (review date Summer 1983)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare Meets the Karamazovs," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 2, Summer, 1983, pp. 227-28.

A program note for the Goodman Theatre's Comedy of Errors read: "The plot has something to do with twins and juggling." Therein lay the strengths and weaknesses of a production which offered a unique approach to Shakespeare.

Four years ago a troupe of jugglers who call themselves the Flying Karamazov Brothers temporarily gave up street performances to bring their skills to the legitimate theatre; they offered a vaudeville program at the Goodman in Chicago. Since then, their self-billed "over-educated circus act" has gone on to national prominence and a kind of irreverent respectability. Ever since the Brothers' first Chicago appearance, Gregory Mosher, the Goodman's artistic director, had harbored a desire to bring back the Karamazovs, wedding them to Shakespeare. The theatrical atmosphere they evoke, he believes, is akin to Shakespeare's own—one of high spirit, spontaneity, even anarchy. And as Mosher sees it, The Comedy of Errors, "Shakespeare's most populist-oriented work," is a forerunner to the two-a-day vaudeville bills one used to see at the Palace Theatre.

For the resulting Goodman production, Mosher teamed the four Karamazovs with another street performer, Avner the Eccentric, a gentle, sad-faced clown, and surrounded the group with a company of young vaudevillians and would-be actors. Perhaps the flaw in Mosher's appealing concept was the director he assigned to supervise the production. Heretofore associated with such contemporary playwrights as Sam Shepard and Thomas Rabe, Robert Woodruff, awed by the talents of his zany performers, allowed them to overindulge themselves. The Plautine comedy of Shakespeare degenerated into shtik. The air was filled with flying pins and rings, xylophone mallets, even hammers and sickles; the stage was peopled by tight-rope walkers, belly dancers, baton twirlers, human puppets. The only missing burlesque item was the animal act, but the Karamazovs nearly filled that void by shooting a prop chicken from a cannon—"that may with foul intrusion enter in" [III. i. 103]—to break down the door of the house of Antipholus of Ephesus.

Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors may in fact be about juggling of sorts, an attempt by a bewildered master and his servant from Syracuse to move from dislocation and fragmentation, in which their recognized selves are at odds with the identities imposed upon them by the citizens of Ephesus, to a sanity and wholeness made richer by the discovery of father, mother, and brother. For those who tried to follow Shakespeare's plot submerged in the Karamazov's circus turns, the stage juggling twice took on a metaphorical resonance. Early in the performance the strangers from Syracuse made a hazardous journey across the stage through flying objects—the uncertainties and dangers of Ephesus thus made palpable in an instant. And at the end, the Karamazovs as the reunited sets of twins juggled multi-colored pins in perfect unison. The routine ended with the pins gracefully falling through space to repose in the jugglers' hands, a visual as well as an emotional restoration of harmony and order. These two pantomime moments, accompanied by the music of a strolling Klezmer band, suggested what might have been had word and action complemented one another throughout.

The addition of the paraphernalia of the circus did no harm to The Comedy of Errors. More serious were the cuts. Without the father's account of past events in an opening scene completely excised in this production, present events became incomprehensible. Perhaps the director initially considered the juggling merely as a frame for Shakespeare; but what he finally opted for was a view of the play as a vehicle for the juggling in a production that engaged the eye while disengaging the ear. The cause for that decision may well have been the performers, who, for the most part, seemed to consider acting a mere matter of reciting lines.

There were two notable exceptions. Alec Willows, significantly an actor rather than a vaudevillian, simultaneously played both Angelo, the goldsmith, and the merchant demanding payment from him. His body vertically halved by a costume of different colors, his hair black on the right and blond on the left, Willows switched characters by turning from side to side. With his dark merchant side to the audience, Willows seemed to grow in stature as he threatened himself in a scene of startling intensity. Best of all, Sophie Schwab as Adriana demonstrated that Shakespeare and street theatre can in fact find a meeting place. Clumsily but amusingly tap-dancing on her first entrance, Schwab later on provided the production's most successful moment. Berating her sister Luciana, she punctuated well-delivered lines with a dazzling display of baton-twirling. Because Schwab can both act and twirl, the two modes in counterpoint exemplified the very effect for which the director must have been aiming throughout. Luciana feared for her life as Adriana threw her stick into the air, catching it behind her back or between her legs, only inches from her cowering victim.

Obviously enjoying their encounter with street theatre despite the missing plot, Chicago audiences seemed blissfully unaware that they might have had even more fun had Shakespeare not gotten lost in the two-hour's traffic of the stage.

Joel G. Fink (review date October 1983)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Theatre Journal, Vol. 35, No. 3, October, 1983, pp. 415-16.

The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare's earliest comedy, is the framework within which director Robert Woodruff* has devised a showcase for some of America's new vaudeville performers. Featuring the Flying Karamazov Brothers and Avner the Eccentric, Woodruff's production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago turned the play's setting, the City, of Ephesus, into a land of comic jugglers, jokers, and clowns. To a surprising degree, Shakespeare emerged triumphant, if not unscathed.

The director has freely adapted and reshaped the text for this particular cast and incorporated juggling and circus skills, not as a pastiche to the action, but as its essence. In Ephesus, juggling was a necessary language of communication: a game, a sport, a way to make music, and even a way to fight. In a land where everyone juggled and joked, the Syracusean Antipholus and Dromio were forced to read books on "How-to-Juggle" and "How-to-Joke" in order to learn how to behave properly in that society. At one point, a circle of jugglers surrounded the foreign pair as chords sounded from the gang-music of West Side Story. But nothing in Ephesus was serious for long, and musical strains from The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, and even Evita also filtered through the vaguely Middle-Eastern air.

Given the setting of an exotic bazaar, David Gropman created a three-sided, white-walled set, reminiscent of Peter Brook's famous A Midsummer Night's Dream with the Royal Shakespeare Company [1970]. Simple changes were suggested with assorted doors, windows, stage-floor traps, and colorful cloth awnings. The costumes, by Susan Hilferty, caught the varied colors, textures, and shapes needed to blend contemporary variety entertainers with Shakespearean characters. The lighting by Paul Gallo, and the music, composed and directed by Douglas Wieselman joined the scenographic ensemble to create a bright, fast-paced circus atmosphere.

Even before the show began, the false noses and glasses on The Goodman's decorative statuary gave fair warning of what was to come. Opening the program to the title-page revealed The Three Sisters in large print, scratched out, with the correct Shakespearean title scrawled below. Among the useful program notes included for the audience's edification were: "Each company member plays several parts. If you're confused, ask the person next to you."; "The plot has something to do with twins and juggling."; "… it is safe to assume that the play dates sometimes between Plautus' The Twin Menaechmi and the first episode of 'The Patty Duke Show'."; and "Under-studies never read the play unless a specific announcement is made at the time of the performance." Irreverence was clearly the order of the day. Besides juggling and joking, the production made extensive use of other circus techniques: plate-spinning, unicycling, acrobatics and tumbling, slack-rope walking, stilt-walking, baton and sword twirling, trapeze work, various clown routines and other assorted skills such as roller-skating and belly-dancing.

However, even in Woodruff's land of pandemonium, greater directorial clarity in staging, pacing, and tempo was needed to clarify the action and to successfully sustain over two hours of manic energy. Although not a text which requires the extensive mastery of language needed to interpret Shakespeare's later works, much of the comedy of The Comedy of Errors still Uves in the written text. Language, however, was this production's weakest element. Dialogue was constantly up-staged with as much action as possible, as if the director had little confidence in the script or in his actors' ability to interpret it. The two consistent vocal dynamics were loud and fast, with insufficient attention paid to communicating story line. At one—and only one—point in the performance, someone held up a sign that read "PLOT." At that moment the side-show stopped and the audience was allowed a blessed moment of single focus.

The most successful comic bits added to the script were those that grew out of the text, or from the Shakespeare canon: A peddler's cart labeled "A pound of flesh…and stuff"; a mock death evolving into Mercutio's final speech; and even the Duke of Ephesus' incarnation as Duke Ellington. Least successful of the astronomical number of added jokes and puns were 1) the arbitrary "one-liners": a pizza-delivery boy, Mayor Byrne jokes, or lost Channel swimmers, and 2) the overly labored: One actor (Alex Willows) portrayed two characters at the same time, with hair color and costumes cleanly split down the middle. Although the actor did well with one half (one character), the other half never became clearly defined. The result was more confusing than funny, a conceptual gag that tells better than it played. However, against a relentless barrage of shtick the audience was forced to surrender all pretense of critical sense or sensibility.

Four of the Flying Karamazov Brothers were cast as the two sets of twins, the fifth playing Shakespeare. All five, though they are not actually brothers, or Russian, are multitalented performers, exhibiting along with their physical and musical skills, a strong sense of humor about themselves and about their work. Although there was always a full commitment to the play's action, their personal identities were never blurred, and a flubbed line could always be commented on appropriately.

Sophie Schwab, as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Syracuse, was somewhat shrill and forced in her first scenes, but her energies and skills came into clear focus as she entered into the physical action of the play. Twirling batons or swords, climbing a living "hill" of people in order to swing precariously from a balcony, or even leading a clown knife-throwing routine, Schwab proved to be a performer with the unusual vitality needed to counterbalance the Flying K's. Gina Leishman, as her sister Luciana, also added a strong physical presence and a much needed element of romance to the production. Laurel Cronin, appearing in a number of roles, emerged as a comic performer who could also deal successfully with Shakespeare's text. Particularly in her second-act work as a courtesan, Cronin displayed expert timing and a real sense of play with the audience.

Through all of the orchestrated chaos wandered Avner Eisenberg. In his stage persona as Avner the Eccentric, he blended all aspects of circus to create clown-comedy more akin to the great Russian performer Popov than to contemporary American circus clowns. Particularly in his role as Dr. Pinch, Avner brought onto the stage echoes of Commedia, Punch and Judy, and even the Marx Brothers. The production began with Avner, as a tramp-clown janitor sweeping a spot of light onto the stage. His homage to Emmett Kelly developed as a complex comic turn and established the pattern that consistently followed: a "bit" emerged from the action, then stopped the action, while the "bit" was played out to its illogical end. Avner used familiar set business, much like Commedia dell'Arte lazzi, to bounce off of the script and returned to it with no excuses made.

The rich heritage of popular entertainments, too long relegated to television status, seems to be finding genuine resurrection in the street or theatre variety shows of new vaudeville performers. The Goodman must be credited with bringing together a directing, performing and design ensemble that worked with the cohesiveness of a traditional family troupe.

After a particularly good line of verse, the cast called for the author, and naturally, Shakespeare came on stage to accept roses and applause. This seemed a fitting tribute from this very special and talented group to the writer whom they had revealed as one of the all-time great vaudevillians.

Glenn Collins (review date 24 May 1987)

SOURCE: "Three-Ring Shakespeare," in The New York Times, May 24, 1987, pp. 1, 24.

Judging by its fashion, color and ornament, as William Shakespeare might have put it, the Comedy of Errors now previewing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater would seem to be quite the merry demolition of the Bard. After all, this is the vaudeville version of The Comedy of Errors the production that transforms Shakespeare's town of Ephesus into a circus's winter quarters, where characters polish their acts while performing their lines. There is ensemble juggling, acrobatics, rope-walking, machete-twirling, tap-dancing, a klezmer score and the inevitable appearance of that sacred icon of the music hall, the rubber chicken.

Indeed, so shameless is this Comedy of Errors that it has incorporated a role not only for the theater janitor, but also for William Shakespeare himself. And treading the boards (oh, all right, stomping and unicycling upon them at times) are some of the brightest stars of the new vaudeville, including the Flying Karamazov Brothers; Avner (the Eccentric) Eisenberg, and the three juggler-acrobats of the Vaudeville Nouveau troupe, notorious for their touring show titled, with good reason, "Esthetic Peril."

But hold, Ephesians. "This is not a dismantling of the play," said the production's director, Robert Woodruff. "We are definitely doing this in the spirit in which it was born." A vaudeville version of The Comedy of Errors is "not at all far—fetched," he added, "because the vaudeville elements come right out of the play."

The interpretation of Shakespeare for modern audiences "is ceaselessly debated," said A.L. Rowse, the eminent Elizabethan scholar, speaking from his home in Cornwall. "But the presentation of The Comedy of Errors is a matter about which we can confidently be open-minded."

"It's a play that needs to be filled out with acrobatic fun, juggling and the like," said Professor Rowse. "Originally, there was much knockabout, slapstick and beating to appeal to the groundlings. It's very much a young people's play, and we should not be afraid to call it what it is—a farce."

Farce yes: That might be just the word for the Lincoln Center Theater production opening next Sunday, which brings the female lead onstage for the first time in a tap-dance routine.

The production follows Shakespeare's text closely; the plot centers on the confusion of identities during the chance meeting in Ephesus of twin sons separated after birth. Both are named Antipholus, and both have twin slaves, named Dromio. Inevitably, the two sets of twins are played by Karamazovs.

Although this production is staged by performers who are serious about making people laugh, they obviously take their Shakespeare seriously too. "We're awfully concerned about the text," said Mr. Eisenberg, the actor, acrobat and mime whose one-man show was a Broadway hit in 1984.

Mr. Eisenberg is perhaps best known to American audiences for his role as… well, the Jewel, in Michael Douglas's 1986 film, The Jewel of the Nile He was joined in the movie by the Karamazovs, who first came to Broadway in 1983 with their show "Juggling and Cheap Theatrics."

The staging of a 396-year-old comedy has become something of an event in the world of avant-garde performance. "In a way," said Mr. Woodruff, "this is the first fully realized work of the new vaudeville." He referred to that growing theatrical parade of contemporary jugglers, mimes, magicians, acrobats, clowns, puppeteers, stilt dancers, ventriloquists and other variety performers who have been making their way in growing numbers to legitimate stages, movie productions and television shows from "Night Court" to "Webster."

But isn't it a reach, marrying Shakespeare with the Marx Brothers? "If you do King Lear, you want to get the greatest tragedians," said Gregory Mosher, director of the Lincoln Center Theater. "And if you're doing a comedy, you want to get the best people around at making people laugh. There is little doubt that Shakespeare was able to write for the funniest comedy performers of his time."

Professor Rowse agreed: "Indeed, Will Kemp was the star comic actor of his day," he said of Shakespeare's first great clown. "The play is a bravura piece that shows off well with a cast of young actors."

The Comedy of Errors is Shakespeare's shortest play and his earliest comedy, said Professor Rowse, who dates the first performance to 1591. "It was adapted from the Roman playwright Plautus, and the original was greatly enhanced by Shakespeare's genius."

In this play Shakespeare "worked with the materials at hand," Professor Rowse continued. "He was thinking in terms of characters as they fitted his available cast" of players.

"We try to imagine the scene," said Randy Nelson, one of the Karamazovs, who plays the role of Dromio of Ephesus. "You can hear them saying to Shakespeare, 'Will, the sonnets aren't selling, but we got this gig, why don't you write it for us? Take an old plot from this Greek guy Plautus, and look, right here in our company we've got this great comedy team, they do some great bits you can work in, like their boffo "Spherical Like a Globe" routine. Throw it all together, it'll be great.' "

Some scholars have suggested that the play was the Elizabethan equivalent of an "industrial"—an entertainment commissioned for a fee by an employer for a specific occasion, possibly in this case a lawyers' celebration. "We do know that it was performed in one of the Inns of Court on a kind of feast night," said Professor Rowse. "We know that there was an awful lot of frolicking and junketing and goings-on, and I think it's fair to say the lawyers had a rare old time."

The play "seems to sum up the story again and again," said Howard Jay Patterson, the Karamazov who plays Antipholus of Ephesus. "We guess it's because the lawyers kept passing out during the play—they kept needing to have the plot explained to them!"

"There are comedy bits that make little sense in the context of the rest of the play," said Paul Magid, the Karamazov who plays Antipholus of Syracuse. "These vaudeville routines get stuck in from out of nowhere."

Shakespeare "was clearly working with the Elizabethan equivalent of the Abbott and Costello of their day," said Mr. Patterson. "When they do these joke routines, Antipholus is Bud Abbott, the straight man, and Dromio is the Lou Costello."

Shakespearean clowns, like Will Kemp would have "jigged and juggled and performed acrobatics," said Professor Rowse. "Incidentally, they would have jigged with much gesturing—and these gestures were bawdy indeed, I should tell you! I hope that won't be shocking to American audiences!"

The new vaudevillians seem fascinated by the exploits of their Elizabethan counterparts. "Will Kemp made his reputation by clogging his way from Glasgow to London," said Raz, the strongman of the Vaudeville Nouveau troupe. "You can almost hear Kemp's manager telling him, 'Will, this'll get you some great bookings.' It's like Philippe Petit crossing the Trade Center towers on a wire."

Conceivably Shakespeare himself might have known how to juggle and perform acrobatics, although Professor Rowse is a skeptic in this regard. "As an actor, he was very much a gentleman—in fact he may have been the only one in the theater who behaved like one!"

The new vaudevillians, however, challenge the voice of scholarship on this point. "It certainly can be proved that Shakespeare knew jugglers," said Mr. Magid with mock seriousness.

"And since some of Shakespeare's fellow actors were jugglers, it might certainly be said that Shakespeare knew how to juggle," said Mr. Nelson, without giving away a smile.

"More importantly, there is no definitive evidence to disprove the fact that Shakespeare knew juggling as well as gymnastics," said Raz, helpfully.

Some viewing this Lincoln Center Theater production might think it outrageous that both the Courtesan of Ephesus and Emilia the Abbess are performed in drag. But Professor Rowse said these roles were commonly played by men.

"It's not at all a bizarre matchup," said Ethyl Eichelberger, who plays both roles. "It couldn't be more faithful to the way in which Shakespeare was done originally." The Obie-winning performance artist is hardly new to Shakespeare—having staged a version of "Hamlet" called "Hamlette"—and is no stranger to women's roles, having previously played Elizabeth I, Nefertiti, Medea and Lucrezia Borgia.

The Vivian Beaumont production (which will be shown on public television on June 24) is also pioneering some state-of-the-art Shakespearean shtick. "Woodruff is proud that for the first time in nearly 400 years a line in the play gets a laugh," said Danny Mankin of Vaudeville Nouveau. The line is "That may with foul intrusion enter in," and the joke's secret shall not be exploded here, save for the hint that its payoff requires the assistance of a rubber chicken.

The production has even gone beyond juggling in marrying Shakespeare with another variety art: twirling. The play's female lead, the beauteous Adriana, is played by Sophie Hayden, an actress who has performed roles from the sublime (Masha in Chekhov's Three Sisters) to the ridiculous (the showstopping baton twirler in Barnum). But for the first time in her career Ms. Hayden has managed "to combine both Shakespeare and twirling," she said, deadpan.

One element of this production that Shakespeare could never have envisioned is the addition of Mr. Eisenberg's part: the theater janitor. "It's an extension of Avner," he said of the clown character in his one-man show. "He's the janitor of the theater who gets trapped in the production and can't get out. He's the audience's friend on stage."

Mr. Mosher first hit upon the idea of twinning the new vaudevillians and Shakespeare when he was director of Chicago's Goodman Theater, and in 1983 assembled much of the present cast for a production of The Comedy of Errors. He entrusted this extraordinary company to Mr. Woodruff, who has collaborated with David Mamet and Thomas Babe, and who staged seven of Sam Shepard's productions, including Curse of the Starving Class, True West and the 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner, Buried Child.

In presenting to audiences an Ephesus that is indeed a town of "nimble jugglers that deceive the eye," as Antipholus says, the performers are demonstrating onstage the alternative universe that they envision for everyone and inhabit themselves. "It's the expression of a fantasy we've had about the kind of world we'd like to bring about—turning on the whole world to juggling," said Mr. Magid.

"It's more than our fantasy," said Mr. Eisenberg. "It's a lot like the way we really live, wandering around with clubs in our hands, constantly practicing."

Indeed, in the play, the visiting merchants from Syracuse are taught how to juggle and to tell jokes, just as modern audiences are being schooled in an appreciation of variety skills by a new generation of vaudevillians.

This learning process is exemplified in the performance of Sam Williams, the Karamazov who plays Dromio of Syracuse. "At the beginning of the play," he said, "I have to pretend that I don't know how to juggle. Actually, it's not that difficult for me—I specialize in the drop trick," he said. He illustrated by dropping his juggling clubs. "Took years to perfect this."

The Comedy of Errors has provided the first opportunity for the Karamazovs and Mr. Eisenberg to perform together since the filming of The Jewel of the Nile. Working with Mr. Eisenberg "is like picking up a conversation we had dropped in mid-sentence a while ago," said Mr. Nelson during a recent rehearsal.

The advent of such a production in the Lincoln Center palace of culture provides fresh evidence, Mr. Eisenberg said, that "an audience is developing" for the new vaudevillians' self-parodying, and crowd-pleasing, mixture of extraordinary skill and extraordinary silliness.

"What we do is paradoxical," said Raz. "We demonstrate skills that are beyond the ordinary person's ability, and yet we insist on maintaining a sense of community with the audience." It is in this matter of audience-pleasing that the performers experience such kinship with Shakespeare. They do what they do, as Shakespeare did in The Comedy of Errors, with "simple props and basic jokes," said Raz, in a way that is the opposite "of big-bucks Broadway technotheater."

The new vaudevillians' growing audiences "are not so much increasing in sophistication as learning to lose pretense," said Mr. Eisenberg. "They're abandoning the idea that, oh, we're supposed to go to the theater, sit there and pretend to like it. Our audiences say, 'Let's just go to the theater and have a good time.' "

Clearly this direct relationship with an audience spanning both adults and children is one explanation for the success of Mr. Eisenberg as well that of the Karamazov troupe. This performing collective, during years of street appearances, developed its own esthetic of participatory drama, circus and guerrilla theater. The Karamazovs are pioneers of ensemble improvisational juggling, as well as juggling as music; they juggle their clubs, each other and the audience.

"At times we take Shakespeare's words like objects and juggle them too," said Mr. Nelson. "I don't think we have any pretensions about this production. Our version, well, it's small-letter-'s' Shakespeare—theater with training wheels. Nevertheless, I think Shakespeare would have been pleased by what we're doing."

Is this conceivable? "The thing we must remember about Shakespeare," said Professor Rowse, "is that he was so very open-minded. He was very much interested in production, and I think he would be quite sympathetic to an acrobatic version of The Comedy of Errors.

Why debate Shakespeare's reaction, though, when one can actually ask him? "I'm very glad to see the play finally being performed as I wrote it," said Mr. Shakespeare—or, that is, Timothy Daniel Furst, the Karamazov who plays William Shakespeare in this Comedy of Errors. This statement was uncharacteristically verbose for Mr. Furst, the legendary silent Karamazov, who is mute in the group's own shows, and as Shakespeare in this production.

And what is Mr. Shakespeare's final judgment on the vaudeville version of his first play? "I'm glad you asked me that," said Mr. Furst, assuming his Shakespearean persona "This is the production I would have liked to have had, if only I could have hired the talent."

Edith Oliver (review date 15 June 1987)

SOURCE: "Some Boys from Syracuse," in The New Yorker, Vol. LXIII, No. 17, June 15, 1987, p. 72.

The production of The Comedy of Errors now at the Beaumont is a celebration—perhaps inventory is closer—of juggling, acrobatics, twirling, fire-eating, tightrope-walking, and every kind of clowning, all loosely (and appropriately) tied to Shakespeare. Quite a few lines come winging out, too. At the beginning, the clown and mime Avner the Eccentric walks in, broom in hand, and starts to sweep the bare stage; a spilling pack of cigarettes and another of matches give him a hard time—so hard that he is trapped in the play, which is about to start. Comedy, in case you need reminding, is the one about the identical twins named Antipholus, one of Ephesus, the other of Syracuse, who were separated in infancy and are now grown men, and who employ identical twins named Dromio. At the Beaumont, the play is about five supreme jugglers who call themselves the Flying Karamazov Brothers (they are unrelated), and who appear, in a manner of speaking, as the Antipholi, the Dromios, and a silent William Shakespeare. They are Howard Jay Patterson, Paul Magid, Randy Nelson, Sam Williams, and Timothy Daniel Furst. From the start, legerdemain holds sway—even the other actors, more often than not, can throw something up in the air and catch it. Whether Ethyl Eichelberger, the majestic transvestite performer who plays the Abbess (and the mother of the Antipholus twins), can juggle or not I can't remember, but he doesn't need to. Mr. Eichelberger has enough surprises of his own up his sleeve. Pretty Sophie Hayden, as Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, can twirl a baton with expertise and read lines (also with expertise) at the same time—an ability that is not exactly universal. Actually, for me, the funniest joke in this harvest of visual jokes is verbal: chubby Sam Williams, as a Dromio, is wounded in action and falls to the floor. "'Tis not so deep as a well," he replies to a sympathetic inquiry, "nor so wide as a church door—" as everyone onstage shouts, "Wrong play! Wrong play!" And a dejected and perplexed William Shakespeare wanders in, ripping pages out of a large Folio. There is physical wit, too, as sticks tossed into the air land on the right notes of a xylophone.

As readers of the Sunday Times of a couple of weeks ago may remember, a juggling Comedy of Errors was given the imprimatur of A. L. Rowse, the English Shakespearean scholar. This lively production was directed by Robert Woodruff. My own reservation, risking ingratitude for so much talent at hand, is that somewhere past the middle of the show admiration—that sure killer of laughs—started to replace enjoyment. I was not sorry when it was over. The lively music was composed by Douglas Wieselman with Thaddeus Spae; the stylish sets were designed by David Gropman and lighted by Paul Gallo; the stylish costumes were designed by Susan Hilferty.

John Simon (review date 15 June 1987)

SOURCE: "Up in the Air," in New York Magazine, Vol. 20, No. 24, June 15, 1987, p. 91.

The Flying Karamazov Brothers, as must be generally known by now, can juggle with just about anything, so why not with Shakespeare? In 1983, Gregory Mosher, then running the Goodman Theater in Chicago, invited them to juggle with The Comedy of Errors, which they turned into a three-ring clown show. Now he has brought them to his new venue, the Vivian Beaumont, and the Second City Circus becomes the Big Apple Circus, even as what used to be a mere comedy of errors turns into a comedy of holy terrors triumphantly sweeping away all vestiges of sense.

And speaking of sweeping, the show begins with Avner Eisenberg, a. k. a. Avner the Eccentric, as the Janitor, a role that may have exfoliated from a lost folio, sweeping the stage while actually littering it, only to sweep and litter again. This is emblematic of the production, which drops bits of Shakespeare on the stage only to wipe them away with juggling, clowning, acrobatics, baton twirling, aerialism, stilt- and slack-rope walking, unicycling, fire-eating, belly dancing, female impersonation, onstage band playing, and juggling, much more juggling. But that isn't all. There is, for instance, a hilarious puppet show where the puppet is both a midget and a contortionist because he is enacted by the parts of two people carrying on as only the parts of two people can. But decorously, because this is also a kiddie show, albeit an adult kiddie show, to which children may, without worry, take their adults.

Comprehensive as the above catalogue may sound, it is still not exhaustive, for there are further tricks in the five Flying Karamazovs and their horde of fellow mischief-makers. So this Comedy of Errors brings onstage more types of anachronisms than are dreamt of in your philology—from forays into later plays by Shakespeare to allusions to the latest political scandals, as fresh as Ollie North and Gary Hart, to say nothing of mere linguistic prolepsis. It also instructs us in new and expeditious ways of plucking a chicken, such as shooting it out of a cannon through a glass partition, with the additional benefit of cutting out of said partition the decorative shape of a chicken rampant. About the only thing this production does not provide is a new way to skin a cat, but this will doubtless be adverted to when the Karamazovs apply their revisionist zeal to such a later classic as the one by Andrew Lloyd Webber out of T.S. Eliot.

To the somewhat otiose question "Why juggle with The Comedy of Errors?" there are two possible answers. The shorter one is "Why not?"; the longer, the mirthful capers of this merry troupe of clowns, some of whom can even act. Thus Sam Williams, the chubbiest Karamazov, is so good a thespian he could surely tackle Shakespeare without an Indian club. His Dromio of Syracuse is a rounded comic creation, with a face that outbeams the full moon, a voice that somehow smiles, and a walk, part ursine, part anserine, that is entirely cocky. On the distaff side, the best work comes from Sophie Hayden, whose eloquent baton (it could as easily be a distaff) doesn't merely twirl but also expresses a range of emotions from elation to jealous rage. On top of that, she acts Adriana with gusto and brio—who, by the way, are not the Flying Taviani Brothers.

Gina Leishman is a well-spoken and endearingly bug-eyed Luciana; Ethyl Eichelberger effectively cross-dresses, first as the Courtesan, then as the Abbess, which is quite a double cross; and Alec Willows actually bisects himself, so that from one side he looks and sounds like a gilded butterfly, then, from the other, like a snarling, tattooed punker in black leather. Timothy Daniel Furst, the silent Karamazov, is aptly cast as Will Shakespeare, who speaks to us only through his quill. Here, as he follows the action in his promptbook, he alternates between pride and consternation: the one when the players stick to his script, the other when they serve him with custard pies in the face. Could the text of Sonnet 111 be corrupt and "the dyer's hand" need emending to "the pyer's hand"?

Robert Woodruff has directed skillfully, which is to say he manages to make the onstage crowds collide with one another or the scenery only on cue, and, in general, sees to it that the pandemonium seldom goes slack, which is funny in a walked-on rope but bad in a pandemonium. David Gropman's scenery, Susan Hilferty's costumes, and Paul Gallo's lighting contribute gallantly to the chaos, and if some dull patches remain, they are an almost welcome relief from all those Roman candle-like ones. If some poor souls are still benighted enough to think that Shakespeare was really Bacon, this should conclusively prove to them that he was really ham, glorious ham.

Robert Brustein (review date 6 July 1987)

SOURCE: "Vaudeville and Radio," in The New Republic, Vol. 197, No. 1, July 6, 1987, pp. 28-30.

Milton Berle and Bill Irwin recently had a mild confrontation over the nature of comedy that had the ring of cultural commentary. In the course of making distinctions between the comic and the comedian, Berle, an old vaudevillian of the classic school, turned to Irwin, a rising young mime artist, and asked how he would define his own craft. "I'm a clown," replied Irwin. Berle acted as if he had been stung by a gnat. "Don't say that!" he said, and turned away.

The way Berle reacted to Irwin's identifying himself with an honorable circus tradition was somewhat testy, but I think I know what was bothering him. It bothers me too. The current movement called "The New Vaudeville"—of which Irwin is a founding member—really belongs more to the tent than to the theater, being a source of easily digestible entertainment that leaves no aftertaste. Like his brothers in this movement, Irwin is an affable and charming individual, but his performance rarely probes the inner spaces of human character or the membrane of social circumstance. To see him emerge from a box or catapult himself offstage or assume a variety of shapes is to be in the presence of technical wizardry rather than dramatic insight. The clown appeals to the child in us through artful and zany antics; confronting us with the absurdity of human behavior, the comedian delights the child, but not at the cost of sedating the adult. All great comedy finds its basis in pain; it is tragedy's kissing cousin. Great clowning, even the mournful tradition of Emmett Kelly, is essentially an art of drollery. Comedy looks out on the world, clowning turns back on the performer, which is why the related act of mime—unless performed by supreme artists, Chaplin or Barrault—provokes violent impulses in comic actors: Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie knocking a performing mime off his pins in the park; Harvey Korman on "The Carol Burnett Show" assassinating the pasty-faced mutes who wander serially into his apartment.

I was half inclined to reach for firearms myself recently when watching a New Vaudeville version of The Comedy of Errors at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. The artistic director of Lincoln Center, Gregory Mosher, helped create this show some years ago when he was running the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. It must have seemed a good idea then to entrust this early Shakespeare farce to the manic talents of a vaudeville juggling troupe called The Flying Karamazov Brothers and a mime known as Avner the Eccentric. The play, based on Plautus's Menaechmi, was hardly a piece of scripture, and the artists involved were attracting substantial interest from the public and the critics. How better to unite the traditions of classic theater with the media-made popularity of the New Vaudeville?

The results are winning for a while, and I should report that the audience I was with seemed to enjoy itself immensely. But after 40 or so minutes of miming, tightrope walking, fire eating, belly and tap dancing, pratfalling, trapeze acts, acrobatics, knife- and pie- and tomato-throwing, drag acts, brass and woodwind interludes, and, pre-eminently, juggling I found myself longing for even the most conventionalized presentation of this play. It's not the irreverence that's irritating, but rather the remorselessness of the irreverence, not to mention the air of self-congratulation that accompanies every topical reference, every piece of vaudeville shtick. "In Ephesus," says one of the characters (no doubt inspired by Antipholus's remark about "nimble jugglers that deceive the eye"), "you juggle or die"; but in this Ephesus you can drop dead from the juggling. What wears you down finally is the un-interrupted physicality of the proceedings, and the vain-glorious way the performers assume that the author (represented on stage by a bearded actor in a ruff) must be turning in his grave.

About the only thing I learned from this Comedy of Errors is that even minor Shakespeare must be acted: the major limitation of the evening is the absence of performers who can speak the lines. Sophie Hayden plays Adriana with spunky energy (she also twirls a mean baton); Gina Leishman has moments as her sister, Luciana; and Ethyl Eichelberger does outrageous transvestite turns ("God, it's great to be back from Betty Ford's") doubling as Luce and Emilia. But the others seem incapable of uttering a word without doing a pratfall or flipping plates. It's all rather like Hellzapoppin without the genius of Olson or Johnson, a marathon circus clown act without the respite of elephants and tigers. Yes, the production induces nostalgia for childhood—it seems, in fact, like another of those well-intentioned civic efforts to prove to school kids that Shakespeare can be painless—and doubtless many will find the evening entertaining in its good-natured way. But I hope I don't appear to be humor-impaired when I say that, like other manifestations of the New Vaudeville, this Comedy of Errors is essentially a yuppie phenomenon. It skirts the surface of experience, offering amusement without involvement, laughter without discovery, technique without depth; and the name of that game, my friends, is escapism.

Gerald Weales (review date Fall 1987)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in The Georgia Review, Vol. XLI, No. 3, Fall, 1987, pp. 575-76.

[Avner] Eisenberg's one-man show, named for the character he plays, Avner the Eccentric, had an eight-month run on Broadway in 1984-85. I somehow missed it—perhaps because of my unreasonable aversion to single-performer shows—but I have filled that lacuna in my theatrical education by seeing him in the new production of The Comedy of Errors, which was developed at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago four years before its most recent incarnation reached the Lincoln Center. (I take the "American" in my title ["American Theater Watch"] as a limiting adjective and ordinarily would not talk about a revival of an English classic. The handful of purists who reacted negatively to the production of Comedy insist that Shakespeare has been sacrificed to slapstick, and with their distress as imprimatur, I will consider it as an American play.) Robert Woodruff, the director, called it "the first fully realized work of the new vaudeville" (The New York Times, 24 May 1987), by which I assume that he meant that a record number of new vaudevillians were brought together under a canopy spun out of Shakespeare's Plautine cloth. Eisenberg plays the janitor, a character invented for the occasion (his admirers point out that this is Avner the Eccentric under a generic label), who opens and closes the show, meanders lazily in and out of the action, gets a great deal of comic mileage out of a broom and a misbehaving pack of cigarettes, and generally looks baffled—as well he might. His colleagues include the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a band of manic jugglers (two of whom play the Dromios, two the Antipholi, and one Shakespeare, who wanders around the stage doubtfully checking his script); the Kamikaze Ground Crew, a band of manic musicians; Vaudeville Nouveau, a band of manic music-playing jugglers; Ethyl Eichelberger, the towering drag performer, dainty as a games-mistress as both the courtesan and the abbess; Karla Burns, the only performer I have ever seen who is (as the Syracusan Dromio says of Luce) "spherical, like a globe"; and the admirable Sophie Hayden, who lists only her legitimate credits in her Playbill biography, but who twirls a mean baton and holds her own in the rest of the carnival goings-on. The surprising thing is that both the original plot and much of Shakespeare's text withstand the interpolations, the juggling, the ropewalking, the fire-eating, the knife act, the baton-twirling, and jokes so bad that they would embarrass anyone less dedicated than a new vaudevillian. The trick is speed as well as skill. Like the Marx Brothers in full cry, the assembled clowns in The Comedy of Errors race from one joke to another so precipitately that the bad ones do not have time to hang accusingly over the production as they would in a conventional Broadway comedy.


Ian Judge • Royal Shakespeare Company • 1990


A production that was criticized for putting style before substance, Judge's Comedy of Errors was a visually stunning, surreal presentation of the work. The set, designed by Mark Thompson and described by John Peter as "an amazing technicolor dream town," featured a black and white chessboard floor, white walls punctuated by nine brightly colored doors, numerous objects hanging from the ceiling, and a reproduction of Salvador Dali's couch based on the lips of Mae West. The surrealist theme was additionally emphasized by Dr. Pinch appearing as Dalí himself. The production was also notable for its use of single actors as both sets of twins (Desmond Barrit as the Antipholi and Graham Turner as the Dromios), and for the innovative characterization of the former as fat, unattractive, and coarse, and the latter as refined sophisticates. Nigel Hess's music was praised as clever, but disparaged by John Simon as "something like a laugh track run amok." Performances by Cherry Morris as Aemilia and Estelle Kohler as Adriana were singled out for praise, and the cast was generally considered adequate for the presentation of stereotypical characters.


John Peter (review date 29 April 1990)

SOURCE: "Packing a Charge in Just the Right Place," in The Sunday Times, London, 29 April 1990, p. E6.

Mark Thompson's set for The Comedy of Errors (RSC Stratford) is an amazing technicolour dream town. Poor old Aegeon (David Waller, like a stricken oak) is questioned in a black and white jail which might have been decorated by Malevich or Mondrian. Its walls then float away to reveal a vivid Ephesus built and decorated courtesy of de Chirico, Magritte, Hockney, and the renaissance iconography of magic. You ask what this has to do with the play. The answer is that Ian Judge's production responds to the idea of Ephesus being a city of witchcraft and magic arts which was still current in the 16th century and which, in the right hands, can turn the play from swashbuckling farce into an inspired comic nightmare of delusions.

This is precisely what happens here; and Thompson's designs are an integral part of the project. The colours are a stunning feast of bad taste, colliding in improbable combinations, like the visual equivalent of really awful jokes. Estelle Kohler's fire-breathing Adriana, a kitsch bitch, is encased in orange skirt, shocking-pink ribbed top, electric-blue shoes with silver heels and pink bows. Her blue head-band, with its pink piping, matches the shoes. The effect is of a blood-thirsty canary: utterly hilarious and just slightly sinister. Antipholus's tomato-red jacket comes with orange woollen gloves and matching hat and brolly, dark mauve waistcoat, white shoes with orange toecaps. The white box set has seven doors whose reverse sides, vividly coloured, open on scarlet, emerald, purple, etc. interiors.

Desmond Barrit plays both Antipholuses, exchanging, for the Ephesus twin, his orange accessories for a vivid apple green. The Syracusan brother is slightly more effect; and Barrit, like a large, melancholy, technicolour panda, distinguishes them with a sense of subtle and imperturbable expertise. Graham Turner's twin Dromios are likeable and athletic sidekicks. I will not reveal how Judge manages the last scene, where both pairs of twins have to be on stage: I think the nation should see for itself.

Marie-Christine Munoz (review date October 1990)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in Cahiers Elisabéthains, No. 38, October 1990, pp. 82-3.

Ian Judge's production of The Comedy of Errors offered an unfortunate illustration of the play's title in terms of stagecraft. One should always resist the temptation of bardolatry when dealing with a new production of a Shakespeare play, but this time it seemed legitimate to say that the play had only been an excuse for the director to display his own fantasy world in the most outrageous manner. One may say that Ian Judge's reading of the play brought out the farcical potential of the text, but overlooked almost completely the romance elements, perverted by the prevailing grotesque mood of the performance. It seemed that the main directorial concept unifying the production was the exploration of the potentially devastating effects on the psyche of the discovery of one's 'other self '. The translation of Ephesus into a psychedelic world laid an emphasis on the temporary mental disturbances experienced by characters lost in a specular maze. Potential schizophrenia appeared as the central issue taken up by the director who resorted to late 'seventies visual clichés of hallucinating experiences to bring it to light.

The play opened on a realistic instance of a contemporary prison with a black and white checked floor and an impressive sliding iron gate. Egeon, dressed in a prisoner's striped outfit, delivered his speech before a very stern Duke of Ephesus, wearing a modern dark suit, and a couple of prison warders dressed according to their function, in a late twentieth century fashion. The whole scene was played in a very melodramatic way, and one could feel poor Egeon was doomed to failure before such pitiless judges. The striking 'realism' of the scene, for a modern audience, brought to mind memories of parodic trials in the worst dictatorships of our century. The black and white checked floor seemed to point to the manichean nature of a world where distinctions between good and evil, reality and illusion were clearly defined. Its constant presence throughout the performance worked as a reminder of the existence of a rational world beyond the realm of chaos explored by the protagonists, and of their potential reversibility. The chess-board metaphor possibly referred to the mysterious workings of Fortune on the two pairs of twins, who were magically brought to meet after such a long time.

The transition from Egeon's prison to the streets of Ephesus was an abrupt dive into a grotesque, outrageously colourful world. Mark Thompson's set reflected very clearly the notion of symmetry central to the play: his Ephesus looked like a huge open-air square box, with a set of three doors of different colours, facing each other, on either side of the stage, and another set at the back of the stage. Hanging above the stage, standing against a bright blue sky, were golden emblematic oversized objects, periodically lowered down to signify a location or point to an important element in the scene: a porcupine, a centaur, a sphere and Doctor Pinch's magic bottle.

The issue of duplication was introduced from the start with the entrance of real doppelgängers as twin merchants of Ephesus, when the original play had only one character, recalling Hergé's famous Dupond and Dupont [in his Tintin books]. Like the two other pairs of twins in the play they were meant to be identified by the different colours of their otherwise similar garments.

The symmetrical doors of the set were the most effective device of the production, though a fairly commonplace one; they allowed mirror effects and created the illusion that Desmond Barrit and Graham Turner as the two Antipholae and Dromios were ubiquitous. The recurrent slamming of doors gave rhythm to the whole performance—by all means an actor's performance as far as the two main parts were concerned! This pseudo-musical device brought out the farcical potential of the scenes between the two Antipholae and their Dromios and conveyed very effectively the visual equivocations of the play. The never-ending succession of characters appearing on stage like so many Jack-in-the-boxes, together with the explosion of the garish colours of the characters' costumes, induced vertigo in the audience.

The most patent feature of the production was its tendency to resort to exaggeration. Garish colours, ridiculous outfits—Balthazar wore four pairs of glasses—inflated or mechanical acting styles were all meant to create a world of confusion. The saturating effect of this lavish display of colours and sounds compelled the spectator to look at things with "parted eyes", and experience some measure of confusion which unfortunately soon turned into irritation!

The climactic moment came with Doctor Pinch's scene: he bore a striking resemblance to Salvador Dali, perched on high-heeled shoes, wearing an extremely colourful pair of tights, and orchestrating a psychedelic parody of a ritual meant to restore Antipholus to his senses. Chaos certainly prevailed in this scene, but it is regettable that chaos was not handled more craftily by the director and the actors on stage, for they turned the scene into a circus show. The pseudo-Saturnalian atmosphere of Ephesus did have a disorientating effect on the audience, which would have been perfectly in keeping with the development of the play, had it not been such a strain on the audience's nerves.

The couple Barrit-Turner, already established as a very successful duo on the London stage in another play, rescued the production to some extent. They were excellent as comic stock-characters exchanging witty remarks; the purple patch of the kitchen wench episode was given its full comic dimension. The performance of Estelle Kohler (as excellent Goneril later in the season) as Adriana verged too often on the hysterical to be convincing. Unfortunately the directorial decision to have the actors overact their parts in the most grotesque fashion, marred the performance for the actors were not able to adjust to the different moods of the play.

The final meeting between the two pairs of twins was not very convincing either, for in spite of the similitude of the twins' costumes, Desmond Barrit and his twin could not sustain the illusion when they ultimately had to face the audience. The delayed mirror effect was very disappointing indeed.

On the whole, this production was more remarkable for its 'errors' than for its interpretation of the play.

Stanley Wells (review date 10 May 1990)

SOURCE: "Something Surreal," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4544, May 4-10, 1990, p. 474.

Ian Judge's production of The Comedy of Errors is firmly grounded in David Waller's serious delivery of the grief-stricken Aegeon's opening narration, its comic potential acknowledged only as, warming to his task, he obligingly draws a diagram to explain to the increasingly sympathetic Duke how he and his family succeeded in surviving shipwreck. This is affecting and true, but as soon as it is over we are thrust into a world of farcical stereotypes and mechanistic stylization which, accurately though it may reflect the dexterity of Shakespeare's plotting, drains the play's characters of even the limited reality with which Shakespeare has infused them. The Merchant becomes two nearly identical, strutting, bowler-hatted business men, one in green, the other in purple, carrying briefcases and umbrellas—these figure largely in the production—and sharing the character's lines, sometimes speaking them in unison. Balthasar is a conventionally funny huntin'-and-shootin' old buffer, Luciana a bespectacled frump first seen reading a copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets, in violent contrast to Estelle Kohler's wearisomely outrageous Adriana, prancing around in billowing veils and relentlessly burlesquing every line with exaggerated gestures, simpering leers, and camp intonation.

This production style puts a premium upon cleverness. It takes its tone from the decision to have each pair of twins played almost throughout by a single actor. Their casting is unconventional. Antipholus (Desmond Barrit) is a fat, sleek-haired Latin type, actorishly skilful at milking lines for comic effect, more convincing in his flirtations with the audience than in his wooing of Luciana. Dromio—whether of Ephesus or Syracuse—is usually thought of as a robust contrast to his more gentlemanly master, but Graham Turner, a natural mime with expressive features, is a slight figure, sweet-natured in his efforts to entertain and with a delicate touch of pathos in his put-upon resilience. I should like to see him as Lear's Fool.

The casting of the twins will require, we know, some kind of legerdemain to bring about the recognition scene. In fact each twin has a double who appears only for a moment or two until the closing moments when both pairs of actors are on stage together. It is very ingenious, and it affects the balance of the play. When each brother is played by a different actor there is often an attempt at independent characterization; I had no sense of that here, only of an effort—not always successful—to help us to realize which was which. We are invited to admire the theatrical skill with which it is done rather than enter imaginatively into the lives of the characters.

The most original aspect of the production lies in its evocation of the Surrealist movement in, for example, the reproduction of Salvador Dali's couch modelled on Mae West's lips on which Adriana and Luciana rise from below the stage on their first entry, and also in the symbolic devices hanging over the stage in Mark Thompson's attractive, door-lined set. This is acceptable because there is something surrealistic in the confusions of this play, especially in its hints at supernatural forces at work in Ephesus. Less happy is the director's use of traditions of popular entertainment. There is delicacy in the initial reminiscences of René Clair, Ibert and Chaplin, but before long we are in the world of Carry On films and television magic shows.

Two especial traps for self-indulgent directors of The Comedy of Errors are the Courtesan and Dr Pinch. Mr Judge falls into both. His Courtesan is a leering, hobble-skirted madam, drawing easy laughs as, tottering on high heels, she flails around with a besequinned handbag; and the Dr Pinch episode is drawn out interminably with Pinch as a tasteless caricature of Dalì himself in the role of a conjurer (in the standard misinterpretation of Shakespeare's use of the word) who causes Antipholus to disappear and Dromio to be sawn in half.

The production reaches a climax of self-destructive vulgarity with the descent of a madonna surrounded by flashing neon lights to indicate the Priory from which the Abbess and her attendants emerge in parodic costumes. If at this late stage in the proceedings something Shakespearian emerges it is, first, because Cherry Morris as the Abbess, triumphing over her ludicrous get-up, gives a sense of emotional reality to her reunion with her long-lost hus-band, and second because, in the play's delightful coda, with two Dromios at last on stage together, Shakespeare's point that we depend for our sense of identity on the reactions of others is realized in the embarrassed joy with which Graham Turner's Dromio finds not only his brother but himself.

Margaret Loftus Ranald (review date Winter 1991)

SOURCE: A review of The Comedy of Errors, in The Shakespeare Association Bulletin, Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter, 1991, pp. 15-16.

The program for this production [of The Comedy of Errors] offered one clue and two red herrings. The clue came from the cover arrangement of doors opening like an Advent Calendar to spell the title of the play, the red herrings from the program notes in which Ann Barton discussed the non-farcical elements of the play and Joan Woodward contributed serious comments on the nature of twinship. The last thing one expected was carefully orchestrated, organically conceived French farce.

The play opened to the sound of drums to reveal Aegeon (David Waller) undergoing interrogation before Solinus, Duke of Ephesus (David Killick), a black-suited modern bureaucrat. Frantically, Aegeon told his long, involved tale of missing children, complete with impossible diagram. Then, after he received a temporary reprieve until sunset, the action opened with a quick-as-a-whisker scene change to the accompaniment of jazzy music. A brilliantly-lit, hard-edged set with tessellated black and white floor, white walls, and nine doors of different colors immediately set the metatheatrical tone of the production. Above floated emblems denoting places: centaur, phoenix, porpentine, alchemical flask, which were lowered to suit the occasion. Of course, doors are made to open, and all the side doors opened on cue as characters in assorted bed attire took in the daily milk. Then Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse (Desmond Barrit and Graham Turner) entered center back leaving doors open, which revealed a vast perspective of other doors, while demonstrating that one could pass behind all three rear doors. Overall, the set was reminiscent of a one-dimensional comic book, Dick Tracy, for instance, or the flatness of a Giorgio di Chirico picture.

Antipholus and Dromio were a combination of Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy, Jackie Gleason and straight man. The Antipholi (doubled by Barrit) were burly and loud-voiced, dressed in light trousers, orange or red coats, gloves, and matching gondolier hats. The two Dromios (doubled by Turner) were active and agile cocksparrows in striped waistcoats (either yellow and green or yellow and red), with black bowler hats. They were played with cockney accents. Quick changes of coat and hat changed the identities of each set of twins. To be sure, the Antipholi looked much older than their Dromios—but in this performance anything went that was good for a laugh.

Sight gags were endemic, and witty memory-jogging signifiers abounded. The house of Adriana (Estelle Kohler) at the Centaur had light furniture, and she wore bright clothes, while Luciana (Caroline Loncq) was a spectacles-wearing bluestocking. Thus she achieved envious sexual frustration as she lectured her sister (and later the wrong Antipholus) on matrimonial conduct. At this location, the director, Ian Judge, solved the problem of the first twin Dromio confrontation by having their colloquy take place (though somewhat inaudibly) through an intercom on a front door that could have come from the film Mon Oncle, M. Hulot. In the final scene, when the Antipholi appear simultaneously with the Dromios, two suitably dressed Doppelgängers (Ross Harvey and Ian Embleton) were used, most of the time with their backs to the audiences, as they came out of a manhole, which their counterparts had previously used, reminiscent of a Beckett play.

All characters were stereotypically costumed, whether "Peeler" policeman, slightly blind Goldsmith (Raymond Bowers), bluff Merchant (John Bott), or Courtesan (Toni Palmer). She wore a towering blonde wig, and, poured into the tightest red hobbleskirted dress imaginable, she wiggled and tottered on four-inch heels, barely able to get up or down. One pair of male Ephesians were dressed parodically in bright green and purple business suits, with matching bowler hats and umbrellas, as they moved and spoke as one. Balthasar's "wife" was a Charley's Aunt type. Even the Abbess (Cherry Morris) and her entourage of nuns wore the most astonishing white habits with wired headdresses that totally defied both gravity and starch.

Music underlined the action, with split-second timing and expert use of percussion, witty trombone solos (and commentaries), and wind instruments. Even romantic interludes were so punctuated, as when Antipholus of Syracuse attempted to woo Luciana with a nosegay. He then danced a waltz as lightly as Jackie Gleason. Luciana's shock at this solicitation worked brilliantly against the music. The jeweller Angelo was accompanied by music suitable for Keystone Kops, who wandered in and out, while the superbly-timed action went with the ever-increasing speed and cumulative effect of a rollercoaster. Pieces of clothing were sometimes misplaced as the pace accelerated, but someone always picked up as one gag followed another.

The one slapstick act which was less than successful was that of Doctor Pinch, the Conjuror, played by David Killick in the manner of Frank Morgan's Wizard of Oz. He was the man who sawed a gentleman in half and made another disappear in a false-bottomed cupboard. To be sure, this was a misreading of the conjuror's character and purpose as an instrument of transformation and almost mystical significance, and the zany farce, complete with hot-air balloon, went on a trifle too long. The intrusion of medical personnel in operating-room garb was not very effective either. But, overall, it was a matter of who's counting, and who cares! The audience was asked simply to surrender itself to the premises of farce and forget anything serious about the play. As a result, the words of contemporary wisdom that Shakespeare gave to the Abbess were almost irrelevant (and, incidentally, not very audible). After the pardon of Aegeon and the final sorting out of couples, who danced off, the two Dromios were left alone on the stage. They looked warily at each other, then embraced, ande hand in hand turned their backs and walked into a parodic Hollywood sunset.

This was a singularly merry, imaginative, and escapist romp. A good time was had by most, if not all, and even purists laughed—rather more than somewhat.

John Simon (review date 2 September 1991)

SOURCE: "London, Part I," in New York Magazine, Vol. 24, No. 34, September 2, 1991, pp. 48-50.

Ian Judge's elaborate, and elaborately misconceived, mounting of The Comedy of Errors falls rather flat. Judge has had the whimsical notion, of turning Shakespeare's likable bit of juvenilia into an artful cross between Italian commedia dell'arte and French bedroom farce, neither of which it is. Mark Thompson's smashing décor is a blackand-white chessboard floor enclosed by three white walls, each sporting three black doors that, when opened, reveal a fragment of a gaudily colored world. Above all this floats an abundance of blue sky, sometimes bedecked with sportive clouds, in front of which hang four gilded sculptures that, lowered, designate one of four different locations. Fine, but why begin with a scarily realistic prison in which Aegeon's death sentence rings alarmingly true, starting us off on the first of false notes?

Thus the subsequent horseplay is not helped by the two Antipholuses and two Dromios being played by a single actor each, with quick, slight changes of costume to differentiate them. True, no one can look so much like an identical twin than that person himself, but if this requires, as it does, sneaking in two new actors very late in the game and expecting us to swallow this obvious subterfuge whole, the demand is much heavier than merely asking us to accept from the outset mild similarity as intense resemblance.

Moreover, when the Antipholuses are played by an able but middle-aged and heavy-set actor, Desmond Barrit, who is no looker, and the two Dromios by the very young and rather too cute Graham Turner—though the masters and servants are meant to be coevals—the precise mechanism of deliberate theatrical confusion becomes diverted and subverted. And finally all those magic tricks, comically winking neon lights, gaudy costumes, elephantine wimples—not to mention Feydeauish doors that lead to no bedrooms—begin to devour one another and cannibalize the whole play. Nigel Hess's clever music, indulging in all kinds of aural smirks, outraces the stage action and becomes something like a laugh track that's run amok.

Individual comic touches do work at times, but they work at the expense of the whole, and most of the supporting performances, in particular Caroline Loncq's Luciana, are too studied to be funny. I did, however, appreciate Estelle Kohler's neat Adriana, the least forced and most amiable performance of the evening.

Comparisons And Overviews

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Harold Child (essay date 1922)

SOURCE: "The Stage History of The Comedy of Errors," in The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson, Cambridge at the University Press, 1922, pp. 115-19.

[In the following excerpt, Child provides a stage history of The Comedy of Errors, from its premiere at Gray's Inn in 1594 to F.R. Benson's 1905 production in London.]

In spite of an entry in the accounts of the Treasurer of the Chamber, which states that the Lord Chamberlain's Company was acting before the Court at Greenwich on the evening of December 28, 1594, it is commonly accepted that on that evening they were acting Shakespeare's play, The Comedy of Errors, in Gray's Inn during the Christmas Revels. Gesta Grayorum, the contemporary account of those revels, gives a vivid picture of the scene. When the Lord Ambassador from Templaria,' the Inner Temple, had been placed in a chair of state in the hall, 'there arose such a disordered Tumult and Crowd upon the Stage, that there was no Opportunity to effect that which was intended.' Worshipful Personages, and 'Gentlewomen, whose Sex did privilege them from Violence,' crowded on to the stage, and might not be displaced. The Lord Ambassador and his train departed, 'in a sort, discontented and displeased'; but still the tumult went on, so as to 'disorder and confound any good Inventions whatsoever. In regard whereof, as also for that the Sports intended were especially for the gracing of the Templarians, it was thought good not to offer any thing of Account, saving Dancing and Revelling with Gentlewomen; and after such Sports, a Comedy of Errors (like to Plautus his Menechmus) was played by the Players. So that Night was begun, and continued to the end, in nothing but Confusion and Errors; whereupon, it was ever afterwards called, The Night of Errors.'

In 1598 Meres mentions 'Shakespeare … his Errors' among the six comedies of Shakespear; the Revels Accounts show that 'The Plaie of Errors, by Shaxberd,' was acted by His Majesty's Players before the Court at White-hall on Innocents' Night, 1604. Then the play disappears for nearly a century and a half. On October 9, 1734, 'a Comedy in two Acts taken from Plautus and Shakspeare, called See if you like it, or 'Tis all a Mistake' was acted at Covent Garden by Stoppelear and others. Five times in the season of 1741-2 The Comedy of Errors was acted at Drury Lane, and it is recorded that in these performances Macklin played Dromio of Syracuse; and thereafter, in one version or another, the comedy appeared pretty regularly at Covent Garden, and once or twice at Drury Lane, until the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. It seems to have been a special favourite for benefit nights. Several people tried their hands at improving it; and it is not always possible to tell from the records whose version was acted on each occasion, though it is safe to conclude that it was never, during that period, Shakespeare's own. And in the casts Antipholus is always spelled Antipholis. At Covent Garden, on April 24, 1762, The Twins, or theComedy of Errors was acted 'but once,' with a new prologue by Smith. This version was attributed to Thomas Hull, actor and dramatist, but was probably not his work. At Covent Garden, on January 22, 1779, another version appears, which may have been Hull's; or, again, the production at Covent Garden on June 3,1793, may have been the first performance of Hull's version of the comedy, which is said to have been published in London in that year. Meanwhile at the Theatre Royal in Edinburgh, in 1780, a farce by W. Woods, called The Twins, or Which is Which?, 'altered from Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors,' was produced; and this farce, the author of which 'endeavoured to use the Pruning-Knife only to make the shoots of Genius spring forth more vigorously,' was printed at Edinburgh the same year. On April 6, 1790, a version in three acts makes its appearance at Covent Garden; and in 1808, on January 9, John Philip Kemble produced his own alteration (first printed in 1811) of the version by Hull. Hull had cut a great deal of Shakespeare out and had put a great deal of Hull in its place. In general, the aim of these versions was to remove, or to conceal, the 'improbability' of the events, and to get rid of some of the verbal witticism which amused Georgian audiences less than it had amused Elizabethan. Among the players who took part in the comedy during this period we find Hull constantly playing Aegeon. 'Gentleman' Lewis was famous as Antiphohs of Syracuse. Quick was an excellent Dromio of Ephesus, with sometimes Brunsdon, but usually Munden for Dromio of Syracuse; and, after Quick had left Covent Garden for Drury Lane, we find Rees playing Dromio of Ephesus to the Dromio of Syracuse of Munden, and closely imitating Munden's voice and manner. Mrs Less-ingham, Mrs Bates, Mrs Mattocks and Miss Wallis all played Adriana; and an eminent Luciana was Mrs Mountain, while Wewitzer was often seen as Dr Pinch. When Kemble first produced his alteration of the version by Hull (who died just about that time), Pope and Charles Kemble played the Antiphohs twins, Munden and Blanchard the Dromios (unfortunately, Blanchard was much taller than Munden); Murray succeeded Hull as Aegeon; Mrs Gibbs was the Adriana, and Miss Norton the Luciana.

Kemble's version held the stage (it is at least strongly probable that it was his uncle's version which Henry Siddons, the son of Sarah, staged at the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, in February, 1815) until, in 1819, Frederic Reynolds turned the comedy into an opera, which was as successful as were most of Reynolds's operas, and was acted 27 times in one season. Songs from other plays by Shakespeare were dragged in with complete impropriety; but the staging was splendid; the music was well chosen by Henry Bishop, and the cast included Liston and William Farren as the Dromios, Blanchard as Dr Pinch, Mrs Faucit as the Abbess, Miss Stephens as Adriana, and Maria Tree as Luciana. Hazlitt said of Maria Tree: 'She sings delightfully in company with Miss Stephens; and in the Comedy of Errors almost puzzles the town, as she does Antiphohs of Syracuse, which to prefer: Magis pares quant similes. ' In February, 1820, The Comedy of Errors, which possibly means Reynolds's opera, was staged at Bath, with Farren as Antiphohs of Syracuse; but poor Miss Greene, less fortunate than Miss Stephens, was 'execrable' as Adriana. However, she was not too execrable to play the part in the autumn of that year at Covent Garden. And at Drury Lane, in 1824, Mme Vestris appeared in the opera as Luciana, to the Adriana of Miss Stephens, with Liston and Harley for the Dromios.

Samuel Phelps restored Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors (with many another of Shakespeare's plays) to the stage. On Nov. 8, 1855, he played it at Sadler's Wells, tacked on to a 'new play called Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh,' written by one A. R. Slous; but in January, 1856, he seems to have given it the place of honour in his bill. In the next decade the play was taken up by two Irish brothers, Charles and Harry Webb, who played the Dromios at Drury Lane under Falconer and Chatterton, at the Princess's during the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations of 1864, and in many provincial towns. On one occasion, in 1864, when they were playing the comedy at Liverpool, the Antipholus of Syracuse was a young actor named S. B. Bancroft, and the Dr Pinch a still younger actor named John Hare. The Webbs anticipated modern experiments by acting the piece continuously, without fall of the curtain, and it was beautifully mounted. Lionel Brough once played one of the Dromios at Saker's theatre in Liverpool; but, after the Webbs, the most notable pair of Dromios were the American actor, J. S. Clarke, and Harry Paulton, who acted these parts in 1883 at the now demolished Strand and Opera Comique theatres, the play being given in three acts, with Miss Lindley for Adriana, and some attractive scenery and costumes by Lewis Wing-field. The comedy was in the repertory of the Benson company, who acted it in London in the spring and summer of 1905, with F. R. Benson as Antipholus of Syracuse, and George R. Weir and Arthur Whitby as the Dromios.

R. A. Foakes (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, edited by R. A. Foakes, Methuen & Co Ltd., 1962, pp. xi-lv.

[In the following essay, Foakes discusses early accounts of The Comedy of Errors and notes important reviews of subsequent productions; his account spans the stage history from the play's premiere to Walter Hudd's truncated production at London's Old Vic in 1957.]

The Christmas Revels at Gray's Inn in 1594 included a performance of 'a Comedy of Errors' similar to the Menaechmi of Plautus, and related in some way to witchcraft, sorcery, and enchantment; the description of this night of revels preserved in Gesta Grayorum (1688) leaves little doubt that the play staged was Shakespeare's. Ten years later The Comedy of Errors was presented at Court, also as part of the Christmas festivities, and on the same day, 28 December, Innocents' Day, 1604. No other early performance is recorded.

Francis Meres, in his Palladis Tamia (1598), lists the play among other comedies of Shakespeare as 'his Errors' and there are a number of allusions to it in the seventeenth century. Most of these simply cite the title, which seems to have become something of a catch-phrase, used by Thomas Dekker no less than three times, and also by Robert Burton [see the Skakspere Allusion-Book, 1932]. A verse satire of 1616 includes in an attack on the theatre the line:

What Comedies of errors swell the stage,

again suggesting an almost proverbial use of the title. As all these references precede the play's publication, they at least suggest that it made some impact, and, indeed, two dramatists seem to have remembered and used material from it, one in The Birth of Hercules (? c. 1600), an English adaptation of the Amphitruo of Plautus, which adds a character named Dromio, the other in How a Man may choose a Good Wife from a Bad (1602). This comedy has among its characters a thin schoolmaster called Aminadab, who is described in terms that recall Antipholus's depiction of Doctor Pinch (The Comedy of Errors, V. i. 238-42): 'that lean chittiface, that famine, that leane Envy, that all bones, that bare anatomy, that Jack a Lent, that ghost, that shadow …'

However, no other production of Shakespeare's play in the seventeenth century is known, and when it was revived in 1716, it was altered into the farce Every Body Mistaken. The later history of the play on the stage is largely a tale of adaptation, for The Comedy of Errors has too often been regarded as a short apprentice work in need of improvement, or as a mere farce, 'shamelessly trivial' as one reviewer in The Times [7 September 1937] put it, and not worth serious treatment. In 1734 another version was called See if You Like It, and then, in 1762, the play, as altered by Thomas Hull and renamed The Twins, proved a great success. This held the stage into the nineteenth century, when it was taken over and refurbished by J. P. Kemble in 1808. Hull added extra scenes, and inserted a number of songs, providing also a singer in the person of Hermia, Adriana's cousin. Another adaptation, entitled The Twins, or Which is Which?, by W. Woods, was played in Edinburgh and published in 1780, and ten years later a new three-act version, perhaps a revision of Hull's work, was staged at Covent Garden. These versions emphasized the farce, added a sentimental interest, and cut out much of the word-play of the original.

The next major adaptation was that of Frederick Reynolds, who turned some of Shakespeare's comedies into operas, his second being The Comedy of Errors (1819). He added and altered freely, inserting numerous songs 'selected entirely from the Plays, Poems and Sonnets of Shakespeare', and set to music by a variety of composers, including Mozart. New scenes included a hunting-scene and a drinking-scene; and Adriana, after rendering the willow song from Othello, joined Luciana in a duet, 'Tell me, where is fancy bred', words from The Merchant of Venice. For one scene the setting was a river surrounded by mountains covered with snow.

Later in the century Shakespeare's play was restored to the stage by Samuel Phelps in 1855, and the most notable production of the century followed in 1864 at the Princess's Theatre, when Charles and Harry Webb appeared as almost identical Dromios. The play was acted continuously without scene-breaks, and Shakespeare's text was followed but for some cuts. There was another London production in 1883, and in 1905 F.R. Benson put on The Comedy of Errors at the Coronet Theatre, himself playing the part of Antipholus of Syracuse. In 1915 the play was presented at the Old Vic in a production that is notable because Sir Philip Ben Greet introduced a new actress to Lilian Baylis and the company for the part of Adriana, her name, Sybil Thorndike. The Old Vic again staged the play, in a spirit of clowning, in 1927, with the twins sporting false noses, two turned up and two turned down. In 1934 it was put on in Regent's Park as part of a double bill with Milton's Comus.

The reviewers usually enjoyed the fun in these productions, but were inclined to find fault with Shakespeare; so The Times [27 February 1905] adopted a reproving tone in commenting on Benson's 1905 production:

We… find certain things in The Comedy of Errors out of place in what is mainly, after all, a farce—the impending death of Aegeon, for instance, the love-making of Antipholus of Syracuse to Luciana, and the scene between the Abbess and Adriana before the steps of the priory. These things are not of farce as we understand it…

If farce was what they wanted, Theodore Komisarjevsky brilliantly obliged them with his outstanding production at Stratford in 1938. He used a stylized set reminiscent of Serlio's scena comica, with a large clock as its centrepiece, and mixed costumes of many ages, giving many of his male characters, including the two Dromios, bowler hats of various colours to wear. One reviewer [in The Times, 7 April 1938] described the scene as follows:

Against a romantic huddle of pink and green and grey and yellow houses which may be Ephesian, but in fact suggest an amused memory of Italy, he sets the characters capering… in costumes that seem to have been drawn by happy accident out of an inexhaustible miscellaneous wardrobe.

The emphasis was on fun, and the citizens of Ephesus burst into song or moved into ballet whenever tedium threatened; the music was by Handel and Anthony Bernard. The grace and liveliness of this production brought it wide acclaim, but there were some who noticed that, in turning The Comedy of Errors into a box-office success, Komisarjevsky had shown his contempt for Shakespeare's play, and had simply burlesqued it.

Modern productions have, on the whole, followed Komisarjevsky's lead, or have looked back to his predecessors, Hull and Reynolds. At the end of 1938, a musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse, was performed at the Alvin Theatre in New York, and a film was later made of this. A little later, in 1940, A New Comedy of Errors, or Too Many Twins, a hotch-potch of Plautus, Shakespeare, and Molière in modern dress, was staged at the Mercury Theatre in London. Since then the play has been presented as a Victorian musical comedy, set in the north of England (Cambridge, 1951); as an Edwardian extravaganza, with music by Sullivan, set in the Levant about 1910 (Canterbury and London, 1952); as an operetta in the style of The Beggar's Opera, music by Julian Slade, with costumes of the Regency period (televised 1954, played at the Arts Theatre, London, 1956); as a modern American musical set on the waterfront of New Orleans (Oxford Playhouse, 1956); and as a pendant to the singing of Cy Grant, who acted as a sort of minstrel narrator, using songs from other plays, and music of 'intercontinental origin' (Bristol, Theatre Royal, 1960).

There have also been some straightforward productions, notably by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre (director, Douglas Seale) in 1948, when Donald Pleasance made an excellent Dromio; by the Bristol Old Vic (director, Denis Carey) in 1953; and by the London Old Vic (director, Walter Hudd) in 1957. For this last production the play was severely cut in order to reduce it to an hour's length, as the second part of a double bill with Titus Andronicus. In it Robert Helpmann mimed and expanded the part of Doctor Pinch to such good effect that he almost stole the show.

T. S. Dorsch (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare, edited by T. S. Dorsch, Cambridge University Press, 1988, pp. 1-39.

[In the following essay, Dorsch highlights various productions of 'The Comedy of Errors, from the debut of the work to Adrian Noble's 1983 revival at Stratford. Noting the play's continued popularity, Dorsch concludes, "it has been and always will be good theatre."]

The first known performance of The Comedy of Errors, at Gray's Inn … took place in 1594. Ten years later, again on Innocents' Day, it was played as part of the Christmas festivities at Court. There follows a long gap in its history on the stage, but some early references to it have come down to us. It is listed among Shakespeare's comedies in Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia of 1598, and The Shakespeare Allusion-Book records a number of seventeenth-century allusions, but from this century we hear of no productions later than 1604.

In the eighteenth century there were several adaptations, all retaining the main feature of twins faced with strange encounters, but all departing, each in its own way, from the original. The first seems to have been the farce Every Body Mistaken of 1716. In October 1734 a comedy in two acts, 'taken from Plautus and Shakespeare' and entitled See if You Like it, or 'Tis All a Mistake, was acted at Drury Lane, and was played fairly often at Covent Garden—with variants—for the next seventy or eighty years, and sometimes again at Drury Lane. The most popular adaptation, containing songs and other extra matter, and attributed to the actor and playwright Thomas Hull, was The Twins, or The Comedy of Errors (1762); it is more likely that an altered version of 1779 and another of 1793 were by Hull. In these recreations the play was year after year performed at Covent Garden.

Among versions which did not long hold the stage, there was W. Woods's farce The Twins, or Which is Which?, produced in 1780 in Edinburgh and as a three-acter in 1790 at Covent Garden. In J. P. Kemble's adaptation of Hull (printed 1811), which kept the additional scenes and songs, Egeon was almost always played by Hull himself. 'In general, the aim of these versions was to remove, or to conceal, the "improbability" of the events, and to get rid of some of the verbal witticism which amused Georgian audiences less than it had amused Elizabethan' [Harold child, in "The Stage History of The Comedy of Errors, " in Arthur Quiller-Couch and John Dover Wilson's edition of the play]. It is possible that Frederick Reynolds's conversion of the play into an opera (1819) enjoyed as great a success as Kemble's adaptation.

In 1855 Samuel Phelps brought Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors back to the stage (as he did others of the plays), placing it in a double bill with A. R. Slous's Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh; in the following year he gave Shakespeare, not Slous, pride of place. Ten years later, as part of the Shakespeare Tercentenary celebrations in 1864, the play was produced at the Princess's Theatre and in provincial towns with two Irish brothers, Charles and Henry Webb, as the Dromios, and George Vining and J. Nelson as the Antipholuses (under the direction of Falconer and Chatterton). A generation later came Sir Frank Benson's London production of 1905, with Benson himself as Antipholus of Syracuse. Sir Philip Ben Greet's 1915 presentation at the Old Vic was notable for one of Sybil Thorndike's earliest appearances—as Adriana—on the London stage. When the play was again seen at the Old Vic in 1927, there was much rumbustious clowning, and the twins wore false noses, two turned up and two turned down. In a Regent's Park production in 1934 The Comedy of Errors was, strangely to my mind, paired with Comus.

The most famous and probably the most influential mid-century production was Theodor Komisarjevsky's brilliantly farcical burlesque, presented in the Stratford season of 1938 and revived in the following year. Among the comic devices, Komisarjevsky dressed his characters in costumes of many styles and periods, giving most of the men bowler hats of various colours. 'The emphasis was on fun, and the citizens of Ephesus burst into song or moved into ballet whenever tedium threatened' [R.A. Foakes, ed., The Comedy of Errors, 1962]. The music was from Handel and Anthony Bernard. Although some reviewers thought that Komisarjevsky had too grossly traduced Shakespeare, audiences were enthusiastic. He was followed or paralleled in the use of music by several directors; there was, for example, the popular American musical comedy, The Boys from Syracuse, first seen in New York in 1938, and later filmed.

There were many other transformations: in 1940 at the Mercury Theatre as a modern-dress amalgam of Plautus, Shakespeare, and Molière, entitled A New Comedy of Errors, or Too Many Twins; in 1951 in Cambridge as a musical comedy in the Victorian manner; in 1952 in Canter-bury and London with Edwardian costumes, music by Sullivan, and an early-twentieth-century setting in the Near East; in 1954 as a television operetta which two years later was played in London; and in 1965 at Oxford, again as a musical, against a New Orleans waterside background.

During this fun period The Comedy of Errors was also several times presented 'seriously', more closely following the play as Shakespeare wrote it: by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, directed by Douglas Seale, in 1948; by the Bristol Old Vic, directed by Denis Carey, in 1953; by the London Old Vic, directed by Walter Hudd, in 1957. On this last occasion the play was drastically shortened, to be fitted into a double bill with Titus Andronicus; Robert Helpmann, miming and gagging the role of Dr Pinch, out-shone the rest of the cast.

At short notice, Clifford Williams in 1962 directed a production at Stratford which was so successful that it was revived in the three following seasons; it was taken to America and to Continental countries, including Russia, Finland, and Yugoslavia, and in 1972 was again revived at Stratford. Everywhere it had warm reviews. In The Times Harold Hobson described it as 'one of the cleverest things Stratford has done for a long time. The wild comedy of irrational recognitions is given consistency and a curious force by the suggestion that there's behind it something vaguely disquieting.' Izvestia praised 'the absolute finish and clarity'. Reviewing for the Guardian, Michael Billington called Williams's treatment 'a milestone in post-war theatrical production'.

Trevor Nunn's no less popular Stratford production of 1976, after runs at Newcastle and again at Stratford in the following year, was moved to the Aldwych. There were many justly enthusiastic reviews; J. W. Lambert in the Sunday Times contrasted Nunn's version with Williams's and described it as 'a bulging basket of song and dance and clowning confrontations'. John Napier's Ephesus 'is the absolute epitome of a timeless Mediterranean tourist trap… A lively crowd of tarts, slinky pimps, priests, policemen come and go …In pout and patter Judi Dench predictably enchants as the discontented wife; Francesca Annis is a bespectacled delight as her patience-counselling sister, no less flirtatious than reproving.' This production was televised and is available on video-tape.

Another Stratford Comedy of Errors was directed by Adrian Noble in 1983. This won praise, but also some adverse criticism for its hotch-potch of comic styles. In the same year there was a BBC television performance on Christmas Eve, its text accompanied by a cast list and a chapter on the production by Henry Fenwick. These days the comedy is often played; it always has been and always will be good theatre.

Staging Issues

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Clifford Williams (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Comedy of Errors," in Introductions to Shakespeare, Michael Joseph, Ltd., 1978, pp. 40-4.

[Williams directed the much-acclaimed 1962 Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Comedy of Errors. In the following essay, he provides a short overview of various twentieth-century productions, then goes on to discuss Shakespeare's handling of sources and stagecraft]

To discuss The Comedy of Errors is a pleasant task, for it means paying tribute to an old friend. There is some additional (immodest) pleasure in that I played some part in distinguishing the light of this particular friend hidden behind the bushel. Before 1962 The Comedy of Errors was neglected by both academics and producers alike, despite a production by Komisarjevsky at Stratford in 1938, and another at the Royal Court Theatre in 1952. The latter I saw, but can only recall the Dromios riding about on square-wheeled bicycles and may be confusing this with a ballet by Salvador Dali called Colloque Sentimentale! But the Royal Shakespeare Company production at Strat-ford in 1962 focused attention on the play to such effect that a fairly wide-spread revaluation followed. The production was taken to London and then on a worldwide tour—Berlin, Prague, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest, Warsaw, Helsinki, Leningrad, Moscow, Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York. I will not say that presidents swooned and prime ministers wept, but undoubtedly Comedy everywhere ceased to be Cinderella and was allowed to stay on at the ball.

So overwhelming was its reception (I did six revivals for Stratford) that, for me, it became more like Frankenstein's monster than Perrault's fairy tale. The play loped after me tenaciously and unshakeably. Even today I have not escaped it entirely. Conversations with strangers about my latest production (quite possibly a polemical tragedy about a test-tube baby) are likely to end as follows: 'Yes, I did like it, really I did. Not as much, I must say, as The Comedy of Errors … You did do that, didn't you? … Well, that was nice, wasn't it? … (several sighs) … Still, as I say, tonight was quite interesting.'

The Comedy of Errors, written about 1591-2, was one of Shakespeare's early plays. A performance given at Gray's Inn on 28 December 1594 before an excessively rowdy audience provoked a public inquiry into 'great Disorders and Abuses'! These were stated to have been caused by a 'sorcerer or Conjuror'—Dr Pinch must have been indulging in audience participation—one of a 'Company of base or common Fellows'. I am glad to say that the company escaped to act another day, while the complainants were apparently committed to the Tower of London!

This inauspicious début seems to offer an early confirmation of the knockabout and boulevard nature of the play, and a glance at its pedigree—out of Plautus by Poseidippus, or the other way round—would tend to support this judgement. The play is based on the Manaechmi of Plautus, although it is a matter of conjecture whether Shakespeare knew the Latin original or an English crib, possibly The Historie of Error, performed at Hampton Court in 1576-7. Plautus, who supplied Molière (Amphitryon and l'Avare) as well as Shakespeare, himself borrowed freely from the Greek New Comedy, and his Menaechmi was probably adopted from Poseidippus.

With twenty plays to his credit, Plautus loved complicated plots, scurrility, gagging, backchat, topical allusion (as libellous as possible) and obscenity. His style was boisterous, his mood pagan, his characterization—drawn from the Atellan Farce—coarse. But he developed the fabric of comedy first woven in the fifth century B C (he wrote in the third), and he provided a model of earthy realism for those anonymous medieval dramatists who emerged after the Dark Ages—truly dark for the theatre. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also turned to Plautus both for the unwritten theatre of the commedia dell' arte and for much of Renaissance and Golden Age drama.

Shakespeare was a dramaturgical alchemist. All his life he filched ingredients, prescriptions, and formulae, and never failed to transform them. Whoever the supplier—Holinshed, Robert Greene, Plutarch—his chemistry was transcendent. So with Plautus. Shakespeare is never less than honest to the vivacious bawdry of his Roman mentor, but the crude, jolly and essentially pagan Menaechmi is tempered in the flame of Christian humanism. The result is a delightful piece of theatre, with a firm ballast of poetry and a moral tale to wag the dog! In the Stratford production, the transformation that the Latin original underwent at Shakespeare's hands was beautifully mirrored in Anthony Powell's costumes—commedia in feeling, but subtler in spirit, less boisterous and more witty.

The plot of The Comedy of Errors is at once tortuous and naïve. A husband and his wife have been sundered by a storm at sea. Their twin sons (each named Antipholus) have been similarly separated—one with each parent.

Twin servants-to-be (the Dromios) have suffered the same fate. Years later Antipholus of Syracuse sets out with his Dromio in search of his brother, and reaches Ephesus. His father, Aegeon, following after him, also arrives in Ephesus—unknown to his son—and is promptly arrested (the merchants of Ephesus and Syracuse are on bad terms) and sentenced to death. The other Antipholus, together with his Dromio, is, in fact, resident in Ephesus, but has, however, mislaid his mother somewhere along the route, though he has gained a wife and an unmarried sister-inlaw. The mother, unaware that Ephesus now harbours both her sons and her long-lost husband, is Abbess of the local convent. This situation, complex enough in itself, is further aggravated by a sort of 'seven-year itch' which afflicts the Ephesian Antipholus to the mortification of his wife. It is at this point that the play opens.

More factual than the assorted Illyrias of Shakespeare's later comedies, Ephesus was, in fact, well known in the ancient world, and some of the reasons for this are highly pertinent to the play. Heraclitus said that the Ephesians all deserved to be hanged, and Apollonius tells us why: 'The people are immersed in dissipations and cruel sports, in shows and pantomimes, and Pyrrhic dances; and all places resound with song, and are filled with noise and debauchery.' The principal pursuit was the cult of black magic. Nero hired an Ephesian astrologer, the Emperor Julian was convinced by another that he was the reincarnation of Alexander the Great, and the so-called 'Ephesian Letters' bestowed immunity against death on their possessors. Antipholus of Syracuse is well aware of Ephesus's reputation:

They say this town is full of cozenage; As, nimble jugglers that deceive the eye; Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind; Soul-killing witches that deform the body; Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks; And many such-like liberties of sin: If it prove so, I will be gone the sooner.                                         [I.ii.97-103]

The climate of black magic is emphasized by Shakespeare not only in his transference of the locale from the Epidemnum of Plautus to Ephesus, but also in the addition of a second pair of twins where Plautus had but one set. For the Elizabethan audience, twinship carried an aura of magic and mystery.

Ephesus was the centre and shrine for the worship of Diana—'Queen of Witches All'. When Paul the Apostle visited the city, he found much to deprecate, but he was hardly popular.

A certain man named Demetrius, a silversmith, which made silver shrines for Diana … called together the workmen of like occupation, and said, Sirs, ye know that by this craft we have our wealth… this Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands; so that not only this our craft is in danger to be set at nought; but also that the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised … And when they heard these sayings, they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. And the whole city was filled with confusion.

But Diana was goddess of childbirth as well and, in the light of this function, her shade may be said to throw a beneficent spell over the play. Paul, in his famous epistle on marital obedience, thus finds himself temporarily in her court:

Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church; and he is the saviour of the body.

Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it, that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.

In the play, the same sentiments are presented by Luciana (the sister-in-law):

There's nothing situate under heaven's eye But hath his bound, in earth, in sea, in sky: The beasts, the fishes, and the winged fowls, Are their males' subject, and at their controls; Man, more divine, the master of all these, Lord of the wide world and wild watery seas, Indued with intellectual sense and souls, Of more pre-eminence than fish and fowls, Are master to their females, and their lords: Then let your will attend on their accords.                                        [II.i. 16-25]

Luciana, with her Renaissance grasp of the nature of domestic bliss and cosmic harmony, finds her proper opponent in Pinch, the conjuror employed by Adriana (wife of the Ephesian Antipholus), in a desperate attempt to 'win back' her husband. Pinch is no more than 'a threadbare juggler, and a fortune-teller … A living dead man.' His failure to exorcise the supposed demons infecting Antipholus is set in contrast to the more perceptive and successful analysis offered by the Abbess. Initially, as the surveys the true causes of the friction which exists between Adriana and Antipholus, she shows singular perspicacity. If her remedies—'wholesome syrups, drugs, and holy prayers'—have their own flavour of quackery, we should remember that she is, in fact, addressing the wrong Antipholus. Possibly—as mother and Abbess—she divines this. Her tongue certainly seems to be somewhat in her cheek. At all events she offers sanctuary—a proposal of Grace in the face of pagan sorcery—and gains time for off-stage explanations that, in turn, permit the play's true function to emerge: the celebrating of the sacrament of marriage.

In the final scenes of the play a core of deep humanism unifies the comedy and the near-tragedy, the foolishness and the sagacity, the paradox and the mistaking. Aegeon is released and reunited with his wife, the Abbess, and both are reunited with their sons. The two sets of twins find each other. One Antipholus takes his wife fondly in his arms again, the other has promise of marriage from the sister-in-law. Confusion is resolved and error prevails no more.

In The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare reveals an early mastery of stagecraft that allows him to juggle elements of varying felicity with cheerful nonchalance. But, more than this, he takes here his first steps along a road that constantly returns to its starting-point—a road for a man in search of his origin and his end, in search of forgiveness and reconciliation, in search of reality and identity. It is a road that Shakespeare travels and retravels from The Comedy of Errors through to the last plays—The Winter's Tale, Cymbeline and The Tempest.

I to the world am like a drop of water, That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself;                                         [I.ii.35-8]

Antipholus of Syracuse speaks with the authentic voice of the Shakespearean traveller, and it is a voice that is heard all through the canon.

Robert E. Wood (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Cooling the Comedy: Television as a Medium for Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, " in Shakespeare on Television: An Anthology of Essays and Reviews, edited by J. C. Bulman and H. R. Coursen, University Press of New England, 1988, pp. 200-07.

[In the following essay, which was first published in 1986, Wood examines the BBC television adaptation of The Comedy of Errors, noting that the multiple perspectives offered by the camera provide "the requisite element of surprise within a framework of familiarity."]

Until the massive project of televising the Shakespearean canon was undertaken by the BBC, there had been little reason for examining the adaption of Shakespeare to television. But as the project reaches completion, we find that its varied approaches to the plays often suggest a remarkable compatibility between television and Shakespearean performance. In Understanding Media (1964), Marshall McLuhan classified television as a "cool" medium, that is, one which demands a high level of participation by the audience. Despite the growing sophistication of television technology, McLuhan's observation remains true, in part because only a small proportion of television programming approaches the technical limits of the medium. In particular, the presentation of stage drama on television makes little use of technology which would invalidate McLuhan's system of classification. A television-conditioned audience trained to complete "cool" images may thus, in its psychological response, more resemble a theater audience than does a film audience, which expects to be completely saturated by "hot" images. The BBC production of The Comedy of Errors, a successful marriage of Shakespeare's text to the medium of television, reflects both the general relationship of stage drama to television and relationships particular to comedy, as well as some characteristics unique to the theme of twins.

… The varied perspectives of the television camera offer new life to the joke which results from mistaken identity in The Comedy of Errors. For much of the play we enjoy the distance from the joke which the theater grants us and which comedy generally requires. But the camera also allows us to look through the eyes of the characters. In so doing, it provides us with another dimension of the joke: the characters are emotionally distant from each other, but operate at a proximity appropriate to social intimacy. We are intellectually distanced from their entanglement by our awareness of the existence of the twins, while at the same time we view the confusion from the physical perspectives of the characters. In effect, we move within the joke, although the joke is not on us. But in the last act the joke is distinctly on us as we become aware that the pairs of twins we see before us result from a split-screen reproduction of the actors, a phenomenon that we always experience, at least in part, as a technical tour de force. These variations of perspective provide the classic comic mechanisms with the requisite element of surprise within a framework of familiarity.

André Bazin once observed [in What is Cinema?, 1967] that the problem of filmed theater is to create a space with a "dramatic opaqueness while at the same time reflecting its natural realism." Bazin deplores the traditional escape from the limitation of the stage, which consists of "opening up" the play by varying the scene and creating visual images of actions implied in the play. This technique runs a great risk of combating the devices of an art designed for a limited scene, in particular by denying the text the resonance appropriate to a closed space. The Comedy of Errors, however, does not tempt director James Cellan Jones to the perils of "opening up." Rather its classical unity of place suggests simple distinctions: inside and outside, above and below. His production choices preserve the stage of boundaries, yet he clearly uses the three dimensions of his set. In so doing he escapes a major danger of television drama, that of presenting its audience with "flatlanders," capable only of horizontal movement within an image of limited visual depth.

The set of this production is distinctly a playing area, representative rather than realistic, but it is a playing area to which the audience has extraordinary access through the camera. The intimacy which an actor achieved only at the foremost thrust of the Elizabethan stage can be achieved anywhere on the television stage. Proximity to the actors is thus not inevitably tied to the open spaces of the thrust stage. As a result, the bounded space of the stage becomes a greater resource and the concept of the stage as microcosm is invigorated. Shakespeare's equivalence of globe and theater is invoked by a stage floor which is a mosaic map on which a tale of misfortune at sea may be paced out as it is narrated. As the stage subsumes the map, the action of the play subsumes the broader narrative of travail, which it is ultimately able to resolve.

The original framework of Shakespeare's comedy is the peril of Egeon of Syracuse. Egeon has come to Ephesus in search of his son, one of twin sons, who was lost at sea in infancy together with his mother and a slave, the latter also one of a pair of twins. As a consequence of a standing feud between Syracuse and Ephesus, Egeon is condemned to die unless, within a day, he can find someone who will provide him with a thousand marks for ransom. His narration of the reason for his presence in Ephesus invokes sympathy from the onlookers but no present remedy for his plight. To this framework director Jones has added another, a group of mimes dressed in commedia dell'arte costume. The troupe's whirling capes represent storm winds on the mosaic map in an opening shot, and their subsequent clowning makes the Duke's entrance a kind of circus display. Egeon's narrative, a somewhat long-winded excursion for the modern audience, is mimed by the clown troupe, who produce a prop ship to present the sea voyage and travail to produce two sets of identically costumed clowns to represent the twin masters and servants.

The effect of the clowns is to transform an ordeal from the past into a play in the making, to diminish the play's generic kinship to romance, extended in time, and thus to emphasize present confusion. In a stage play we would say that the clowns remain onstage for the course of the performance. In this television play they remain accessible to the camera throughout the play, visible on and around a mountebank's platform that occupies a part of the set. Together with a fortune-teller, they provide a set of images to support the contention of Antipholus of Syracuse that the city is inhabited by sorcerers and witches. When in Act V narrative revelations are necessary, their miming again serves to focus on the present processes of revelation and thus to preserve the moment-by-moment quality of the playing. Yet without being explicitly offstage, the clowns can remain off-camera for long periods of time. They serve as available images which do not intrude at moments when they are irrelevant. Because of the medium, we are prepared to accept this strong reference to a staging convention, the onstage ensemble, while experiencing a somewhat different form of dramatic narration.

McLuhan suggested that we are involved in depth with the cool medium of television, that we have a sense, which we do not have while watching a film, of being present in the action. Certainly we watch a great deal of television programming which is not fiction and during which we are directly addressed by newscasters and sportscasters, by ministers and psychologists, by hosts and guests, by cooks and gardeners. We are satisfied by a television play that is not completely assimilated to the photographic medium because the production is in part an informative statement about how a stage play is performed, which preserves our sense of the jeopardy involved in live performance. The flexibility of our response to the television image has further advantages. We can distinguish by context between a close-up of a man speaking and that of a man speaking to us in our own persons. I would suggest that we are far more prepared to accept the Elizabethan stage conventions of direct address as members of a television audience than we would be as members of a film audience, accustomed as we are to direct address by the face on the small screen.

The invitation to intimacy implicitly offered by television is enhanced by the predominance of the close-up on the small screen. A single face frequently constitutes the television image. Moreover, although television often acknowledges the size of the audience it reaches, it primarily approaches them as individuals rather than collectively. The largest audience in history is, paradoxically, not a crowd, but a discontinuous collection of individuals who may be addressed with the vocal tone and eye contact appropriate to personal communication.

The BBC Comedy of Errors consistently evokes the power of intimacy. The viewer becomes the focus of the attempts of the characters to rationalize their situation. The world of comedy has been described as one in which logic cannot work because logical alternatives do not exhaust the realm of possibilities. In addition to A and Not-A there is a third alternative, realizable metaphor. Identical twins who consistently cross paths without meeting constitute such a metaphor. In addition to being present or absent, a twin can appear to be present. If we accept the premise that a man searching for his twin deduces nothing from the observation that complete strangers appear to recognize him, we are left with the most logical collection of characters ever to inhabit a comedy. They are even logical in choosing to discuss the logic of their positions with us by directly addressing the camera; we are, after all, in a good position to assess their relationship. We know that Antipholus of Syracuse is not Antipholus of Ephesus, that Dromio of Syracuse is not Dromio of Ephesus. The effectiveness of the convention is further enhanced by the fact that characters off-camera are not offstage: the aside given in a closeup is thus easily assimilated into a scene dominated by dialogue. This production in fact takes a further step, transforming dialogue into direct address to the audience. It is not surprising that Antipholus of Syracuse is effective in addressing to the camera the soliloquy of self-definition which establishes the most serious implications of his quest.

He that commends me to mine own content, Commends me to the thing I cannot get: I to the world am like a drop of water, That in the ocean seeks another drop, Who, falling there to find his fellow forth (Unseen, inquisitive), confounds himself. So I, to find a mother and a brother, In quest of them (unhappy), ah, lose myself.                                       (I.ii.33-40)

But it seems equally appropriate in this production that Adriana, discussing her unruly husband with her sister, turns aside to contemplate a mirror, and her image there addresses the camera with her lament.

Hath homely age th'alluring beauty took From my poor cheek? then he hath wasted it. What ruins are in me that can be found, By him not ruin'd?                               (II.i.89-90, 96-97)

Off-camera, her sister remains accessible when Adriana concludes her lament by addressing her directly. In an equally intimate style, the sister Luciana addresses the camera sympathetically with what might otherwise be merely a pompous remark, "How many fond fools serve mad jealousy?"

This increased intimacy, a product both of the medium of television and of the specific production choices, makes manifest the conceptual issue inherent in the joke of twins, the dependence of the self on the acknowledgement of others. Until the Abbess emerges to reconstitute the identities of the twins in Act V, the viewer remains the locus in which the identity of the characters is maintained. The viewer is the sane companion of each of the confused twins. In the theater this contact is an appeal to a congregation of people rather than an individual. Although the appeal is not mediated by the camera in the theater, the individual's responsibility for response is nonetheless lessened because the burden is shared. Imposing a kind of conspiracy on the viewer, the BBC production actually risks diminishing the distance that most comic theorists have found essential to laughter.

… Although the BBC production extends the use of direct address beyond what the text would indicate as normal stage practice, there remains an enormous quantity of debate reserved for the public forum. One Antipholus has no house in Ephesus; the other is barred from the use of his house. All of the explosive exchanges between master and servant take place in the mart or public square as do arrests and accusations, trials and redemptions. And the language of the public forum is the language of logic, "why and wherefore" as Dromio would have it. Even without the disruption of rationality created by the twins, the logic of debate exceeds its objective and a simple call to dinner becomes a litany of cause and effect.

The clock hath strucken twelve upon the bell: My mistress made it one upon my cheek: She is so hot, because the meat is cold: The meat is cold, because you come not home: You come not home, because you have no stom-   ach: You have no stomach, having broke your fast; But we that know what 'tis to fast and pray, Are penitent for your default to-day.                                     (I.ii.45-52)

In more serious matters an excess of logic as law binds the Ephesian Duke, who must sentence Egeon to death.

Now trust me, were it not against our laws, Against my crown, my oath, my dignity Which princes, would they, may not disannul, My soul should sue as advocate for thee.…                                                      (I.i. 142-45)

If the self which is at risk in the confusion of Ephesus is the public self, bound by social law into the response of an automaton, we have little interest in seeing it preserved. The identity which we as viewers preserve for the twins is their identity as twins. The untruth that they and the citizens of Ephesus try to preserve by logic is the delusion that they are singlets. Our appreciation of the joke of their discomfiture in the public forum is not diminished by our knowledge of their secret, which is after all not a disaster but a "nativity."

But the greatest generator of comic distance, or perhaps restorer of comic distance, is our awareness of the nesting of the medium of the performed play within the medium of television. The hybrid energy (McLuhan's term) of the intersection of media is in itself a source of interest. The relation of the performed play to the televised play does not remain constant. At times a long shot clearly photographs a staged situation. At others, an actor directly addressing a camera establishes a relation to the viewer not possible on the stage. The hybrid medium revels both in the artificiality of its mosaic map on the stage floor and in its exuberant display of animals—a horse, a donkey, a monkey, doves—within that artificial setting. The camera's power of proximity is used to isolate objects—tarot cards, a pair of clasped hands—and in so doing it enhances the iconography of the production not by opening it up but by focussing within it, in effect reading the microcosm.

When the twins are finally united, we view shots which are pure television, composite shots in which a single actor appears as both twins. But we also view shots which suggest how the miracle is performed onstage—shots which shield the face of one or both of the twins and which might be performed by approximate doubles. The energy of hybridization enhances the play of the mind that accompanies comedy. McLuhan's paradoxical observation that television "involves us in depth, but it does not excite, agitate, or arouse," seems descriptive of our emotional reaction.

When spectators are restricted to a single position in space by fixed seating, it is difficult to convey to them extreme contrasts in physical point of view. Viewing characters as being inside is not radically different from viewing them as being outside. But even the simplest television set which enables a director to distinguish convincingly between exterior and interior and to view the exterior from the interior intensifies the ability of an audience to contrast private and public space. In The Comedy of Errors the Syracusan Antipholus finds himself drawn into an interior, the house of his twin. There he is astonished at being treated as if he had come home to his own private space. In contrast, the Ephesian Antipholus finds himself exposed to a public forum which becomes increasingly strange to him. The Elizabethan stage is well suited to represent the openness of the forum but ill equipped to convey the intimacy of the private abode. The intimate space of the Elizabethan inner stage is achieved only at the expense of maximizing distance from the audience.

Shakespeare acknowledges the essential openness of his stage by placing most of the action in the mart, but the crucial action of excluding the Ephesian Antipholus from his home benefits greatly from the camera's freedom in point of view. As he has estrangement thrust on him, so his Syracusan twin has intimacy thrust on him. The camera intensifies our experience of intimacy and thus, by providing a clear contrast, intensifies our sense of estrangement as well.

The interior of Antipholus's house consists, for the purposes of the camera, of two parts: one, an entrance with a small staging area, a door, and a flight of stairs; the other, an upper chamber with windows overlooking the town. The first space constitutes a barrier between the house and the outer world. The door excludes strangers, among whom by mischance is numbered the master of the house. During this moment of confusion, the Syracusan Dromio stands guard over the barrier space, mocking the outside world. Antipholus ascends the stairs with his brother's wife to reach an impenetrable private space where windows afford him a dominant perspective on the town but where he can neither be reached nor be seen against his will.

When Antipholus of Ephesus is excluded from his home, his servant clamors for admittance from outside a thick door. The camera can easily manifest one of the twin servants on either side of the door, but more importantly the space of the hallway isolates the upper chamber completely from the tumult below. The loud and conspicuous exclusion of one Antipholus is counterbalanced by the equally baffling inclusion of the other. Although stage rhetoric does not markedly distinguish between the language of the chamber and that of the forum, the private encounter is nonetheless more intimate because voice tone implies the relationship of the speakers. Luciana, pleading for the return to virtue of what she takes to be an erring brother-inlaw, addresses him with the intimacy of a relative within the privacy of home. Her pleas to him, which we share through a close-up shot, prompt him only to declare his love for her. Of the noble twins, only the one who is a stranger enters private space or intimate conversation. In the mart he is again intimately addressed by a woman, the courtezan. She needs no privacy to assume an intimate manner and the camera captures in a close-up her presumption of intimacy. In radical contrast, the twin who is a citizen of Ephesus is excluded from intimate situations and even from private conversations. His wife and the courtezan join in accusing him of madness, but he converses privately with neither. His closet physical contact is to be bound face to face with Dromio, but the camera directs us to experience this encounter from without.

One space remains screened from the camera throughout the production, the interior of the convent where the Syracusans seek sanctuary. The television stage set permits the luxury of allowing the audience to become accustomed to the exterior of the convent (decorated with cherubs) as an occasional background during most of the play and then to center on the building when it becomes important at the climax of the plot. The spatial unity of the set which represents Ephesus is thus preserved without burdening the stage with a central and conspicuously unused housefront. The convent constitutes still another kind of space, sacred space, all the more so because its door provides a permanent barrier to the camera's eye. From this space emerges the only revelation which has been withheld from the audience, that the Abbess is the lost wife of the doomed Egeon. The Abbess stands at the threshold of the sacred space to resolve the mysteries of Ephesus. As the private interior defines by contrast the public mart, so our visual access to the house of Antipholus defines by contrast a mystery in the inaccessible interior of the convent.

Simultaneous to the exclusion of the audience from an interior and from a secret is a shift in visual style that plays a joke on the viewer. Although the viewer is aware that a single actor has been twinned by an editing process, he nonetheless experiences simultaneously two characters that he knows are derived from images of that single actor. And the more convincing the composite image the greater the viewer's delight. Reserving the most flamboyant use of the camera until the final moments of the play preserves the power of the visual image to surprise and releases it precisely where it can enhance a moment of grace.

The ultimate effect of this production is in some ways akin to that of environmental theater in multiplying the viewing perspectives of the audience while preserving a bounded playing area representative of reality yet obviously a stage. Camera angles allow us to share the perspective of the characters, but for the most part we share their emotions by being addressed as confidants in a manner more intimate than the stage aside. Because the questions of identity raised in the play are provoked by the outward appearance of the twins, the camera's capacity for purposeful looking becomes an asset. As an audience we look at images, mirror images, and duplicated images. Moreover, we look at how people look at each other when confusion begins to triumph. So much of the play is about being looked at that the simple close-up of an actor's face becomes an instrument of power.

Looks that imply suspicion of disloyalty, dishonor, and madness constitute a maze of funhouse mirrors from which the twins emerge into the bright sunlight of enhanced identity. To have a twin is to have more than ordinary significance as an individual. Thus the Duke marvels at the noble twins:

One of these men is genius to the other: And so of these, which is the natural man, And which the spirit? Who deciphers them?                                     (V.i.333-35)

Even the servant twins, who are left with the last word, are enhanced. The Ephesian observes to his brother, "I see by you I am a sweet-fac'd youth."

The techniques of television serve to sharpen the contrasts inherent in this Shakespearean text without distorting its natural rhythm. And having the implicit permission of its audience to contain another medium, television can preserve the element of play, deliberate unreality, which is of the essence of The Comedy of Errors.

Further Reading

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Christiansen, Richard. "Shakespeare Breaks into Vaudeville for an Offbeat Comedy of Errors." The Chicago Tribune Arts and Books (16 January 1983): 8-9.

Provides an overview of director Robert Woodruff's career and discusses his association with the Flying Karamazov Brothers for his 1983 production at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.

Edinborough, Arnold. "The Stratford Shakespearean Festival." Shakespeare Quarterly XIV, No. 4 (Autumn 1963): 433-36.

Reviews Jean Gascon's 1963 production at Stratford, Ontario, noting that many of the director's innovations were unsuccessful.

Gibson, Rex. "Comic Cuts." The Times Educational Supplement (18 May 1990): B12.

Finds much to admire in Ian Judge's imaginative 1990 RSC Comedy of Errors but notes the production lacked the "serious element" present in Shakespeare's play.

Gordon, Giles. "Spot On." The Spectator 252, No. 8132 (19 May 1984): 34.

Disparages the "circus-style production" of Adrian Noble's Comedy of Errors but judges the individual performances suprisingly effective.

Gussow, Mel. "A Highly Seasoned Comedy of Errors." The New York Times (17 August 1975): II, 5.

Declares the John Pasquin/Joseph Papp production of The Comedy of Errors in New York's Central Park a crowd-pleaser, although he laments its emphasis on low comedy.

Kuner, Mildred C. "The New York Shakespeare Festival, 1967." Shakespeare Quarterly XVIII, No. 4 (Autumn 1967): 411-15.

Praises Gerald Freedman's 1967 revival of The Comedy of Errors as "the funniest, freshest, and breeziest within memory."

Lambert, J. W. "High Comedy and Low Spirits." The Sunday Times, London (3 October 1976): 37.

Favorable review that describes Trevor Nunn's RSC presentation as "a bulging basket of song and dance and clowning confrontations."

Neill, Heather. "Holiday Treat." The Times Educational Supplement (19 July 1991): 24.

Admires the child-like vision of Ian Judge's 1990 RSC staging of The Comedy of Errors.

Nightingale, Benedict. "Amphitheatre of War." New Statesman 92, No. 2377 (8 October 1976): 487.

Applauds Trevor Nunn's 1976 production as "fetchingly inventive and funny" but notes that at times the director seemed preoccupied with using as many comic props as possible.

Odell, George C. D. "John Kemble and Thomas Hull" and "Frederick Reynolds: The Comedy of Errors." In his ShakespeareFrom Betterton to Irving, Vol. II, pp. 45-8, 131-35. 1920. Reprint. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1963.

Discussions of two notable productions of The Comedy of Errors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

St. Clare Byrne, Muriel. "The Shakespeare Season at the Old Vic, 1956-57 and Stratford-upon-Avon, 1957." Shakespeare Quarterly VIII, No. 4 (Autumn 1957): 461-92.

Assesses Walter Hudd's pairing of The Comedy of Errors with Titus Andronicus in a double bill. St. Clare Byrne finds the performances remarkably robust and spirited, though the comedy suffered from its pairing with the bloody tragedy.

Sullivan, Dan. Review of The Comedy of Errors. The New York Times (15 June 1967): 58.

Praises Gerald Freedman's New York Shakespeare Festival production for remaining faithful to the text and not overloading the play with slapstick and sight-gags.

Review of The Comedy of Errors. Theatre World LVIII, No. 453 (October 1962): 11-12.

Favorably reviews the 1962 RSC production, especially extolling Clifford Williams's "masterly direction," which kept the action away from farce and on "a more serious plane."

Review of The Comedy of Errors. The Times, London (13 April 1938): 12.

Describes Theodor Komisarjevsky's 1938 production at Stratford-upon-Avon as a "fantastically decorated treatment with uncommon liveliness and clearness of definition."

"Double Bill at the Old Vic." The Times, London (24 April 1957): 3.

Faults Walter Hudd for combining two dissimilar plays, The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus, in a double performance, finding that the actors in the comedy over-compensated for the heaviness of the preceding tragedy.

"Macabre Aspects of Split Personality." The Times, London (12 September 1962): 12.

Characterizes the Antipholi in Clifford Williams's RSC production—Alec McCowen and Ian Richardson—as two halves of the same personality.

"Shakespeare Production that Has Mellowed with Success." The Times, London (16 April 1963): 15.

Asserts that the revival of Clifford Williams's Comedy of Errors demonstrated greater assurance than had the earlier presentation.

Trewin, J.C. "The Old Vic and Stratford-upon-Avon 1961-1962." Shakespeare Quarterly XIII, No. 4 (Autumn 1962): 505-19.

Examines the performances in Clifford Williams's staging and admires the commedia dell' arte touches.

—. Review of The Comedy of Errors. The Illustrated London News 272, No. 7032 (July 1984): 82.

Dismisses Adrian Noble's RSC revival as "a parade of self-conscious directorial invention."

Tucker, Carli. "Federico Shakespeare." The Village Voice XX, No. 33 (18 August 1975): 79.

Praises John Pasquin's decision to set his 1975 New York Shakespeare Festival production in an Italian town of the 1930s, noting that the scenery evoked "Fellini at his most nostalgic."

Wardle, Irving. Review of The Comedy of Errors. The Times, London (21 June 1972): 9.

Extols the performances of the cast in Clifford Williams's 1972 revival of Shakespeare's comedy.

Young, B. A. Review of The Comedy of Errors. Punch CCXLIII, No. 6367 (19 September 1962): 428.

Praises Clifford Williams's production as "delightfully inventive."


Axton, Marie. "Heirs and Twinned Persons: 'Gesta Grayorum' 1587/8 and 1594/5." In her The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, pp. 73-87. London: Royal Historical Society, 1977.

Examines the performance of The Comedy of Errors at Gray's Inn within the political, social, and religious milieux of the Inns of Court.

Scott, Michael. "The Comedy of Errors." In his Renaissance Drama and a Modern Audience, pp. 1-17. London: The Macmillan Press, 1982.

Examines Shakespeare's comedy within a performance context, attempting to "provide a critical evaluation of the play's theme and structure and an account of some of its most recent productions on the modern British stage."


Slavery, English Servitude, and The Comedy of Errors


The Comedy of Errors (Vol. 34)