In the centuries since they were penned, the works of Shakespeare have been reimagined, dressed up, dulled down and transplanted into countless different eras, scenarios and cultural contexts. In fact, this process of relentless reinvention has produced such a spectrum of wild results, it can feel like someone must be rolling giant bingo-style balls to spit out random settings and takes.
The Taming of the Shrew in a 1990s American high school with Julia Stiles. Macbeth in a 1940s film noir hotel, and the audience can wander across 10,000 square metres of set and interact with actors. Hamlet in Africa with cartoon lions. Romeo and Juliet in a sun-bleached California. The Tempest in a steampunk alternate world. Othello in a basketball team, also with Julia Stiles.
In Bell Shakespeare’s latest production, those bingo balls have spat out a vision of The Comedy of Errors set in a 1970s seaside resort. Sometimes people wear cowboy hats. And most of the time, no one wears shoes.
Does the setting add a missing element to one of Shakespeare’s earliest farces? Not necessarily, but it does give costume and set designer Hugh O’Connor a lot to play with, from the pastel green leisure suits and low-cut leopard-print shirts worn by twins Antipholus and, well, Antipholus (more on that in a moment) to a truly epic Camilla-esque kaftan worn by Antipholus’s wife, Adriana.
The main conceit of the play, that of twins being mistaken for each other, makes it difficult to describe the plot without falling into the same trap of not knowing who is who. The story concerns two pairs of twins, to whom unimaginative parents bestowed not only identical DNA, but also identical names.
One pair of twins are named Antipholus, born into wealth to parents Egeon (Maitland Schnaars) and Emilia (Leilani Loau). Egeon and Emilia also bought a second pair of twins, who were born on the same day as Antipholus and Antipholus, to be slaves for the Antipholuses. The slave twins were both named Dromio. You can probably see where this is going.
After a shipwreck (what else?), the family is split exactly in half, with Egeon, one Antipholus (Skyler Ellis) and one Dromio (Julia Billington) ending up in Syracuse, and Emilia, the other Antipholus (Felix Jozeps) and the other Dromio (Ella Prince) ending up in Ephesus. Egeon, and the now adult Antipholus and Dromio, travel from Syracuse to Ephesus – and hey presto, we have the setup for one of the English-speaking world’s earliest farces.
Gender-swapping has become so common in Shakespeare adaptations it’s nearly a requirement, and in this production the Dromios are played by Julia Billington and Emma Prince. Billington is a standout, breaking the fourth wall early in the piece with perfect comedic timing. She’s constantly in motion, mugging and strutting across the stage, and her Dromio has a twinkle in his eye and a puckish sense of mischief. The Dromios are still played as male, a reversal of the original Elizabethan tradition of male actors playing all the female parts.
A more interesting switch is Adriana’s sister, Luciana, who in this production is her brother, Luciano, bedecked in resort wear of eye-watering clashing patterns. Joseph ‘Wunujaka’ Althouse plays Luciano with a shy innocence. The addition of a queer love story is sweetly romantic, not belaboured or played for laughs, and is a welcome update to the classic boy-meets-girl-who-thinks-boy-is-her-sister’s-husband-and-they-fall-in-love narrative. You know, that classic.
Ellis’s Antipholus is well matched to Billington’s Dromio, with a hapless charm that takes the audience along for the ride as he gets into an ever-more improbable series of scrapes. The pair seem the most comfortable with the sometimes awkward, rhyming dialogue, bringing it to life with naturalistic inflection.
But though the language can be sometimes confronting for an audience unused to the cadence, Janine Watson’s direction makes it easy to follow exactly what is going on. Even if what is going on could have been easily remedied with a simple “ah yes, I have a twin brother”.