‘The Comedy of Errors’ can sometimes feel like a less successful dry run for the more grown-up ‘Twelfth Night’, both being twin sibling-based mistaken identity comedies set in coastal cities. But where ‘Twelfth Night’ is melancholic and profound, ‘The Comedy’ is so fundamentally lacking in emotional weight that modern directors have a tendency to really overwork the physical business when staging it, worried that the language isn’t enough to secure the laughs required to justify the endeavour.
Sean Holmes’s deft Globe production steers an almost effortless path through it, however. It’s less conceptual than some of his shows at the iconic theatre, though there does seem to be a whole thing going on with the cast wearing wilfully old-school Elizabethan-style costumes - there are a lot of codpieces in the house.
Mostly, though, he just makes it fun. Breezing in at an hour and 45 minutes with no interval, it’s an uncluttered production that avoids gimmickry. When the National Theatre did it about ten years ago the production featured a live ambulance on stage for whatever reason. This one puts storytelling at the centre: with a lack of extraneous physical business, it’s about as easy as is ever going to be to follow the plot about two sets of identical twin brothers, with the same names as each other, who are separated as children and grow up in different, rival city-states, now causing merry heck as they end up in the city of Ephesus at the same time as their long-lost father Egeon faces execution there.
I mean, the plot is still pretty much a mess, but this show’s a hoot. Sometimes it rolls its eyes and takes the piss out of the ludicrousness of the story, sometimes the cast have silly fun with the language – the scene where Michael Elcock’s Antipholus of Syracus and Jordan Metcalfe’s Dromeo of Syracuse just overemphatically spit the word ‘sir’ at each other is delightful – often it just sells the play with skilled characterisation. Metcalfe is particularly adept at delivering his lines with an ironic detachment that never pitches into actual cynicism: his raised eyebrows reading of the scene in which his Dromeo explains how fat the other Dromeo’s unseen wife is, is a pure joy – especially the exaggeratedly knowing grin he unleases on the audience when he says the word ‘globe’.
When I caught up with it a week after its press night, illness had taken actor George Fouracres – playing Dromeo of Ephesus – out of action. And Holmes’ production is lean and lucid enough to absorb it, even ending up making a gag out of the fact that Fouracres’s script-in-hand replacement David Ijiti looks absolutely nothing like Metcalfe, whose identical twin he was nominally playing. Mostly I think Holmes has identified the fact that overegging ‘The Comedy of Errors’ makes it harder to digest, not easier, and that with it comes to making it a genuine comedy, less is more.