By Lois Maskiell
Staging one of Shakespeare’s works must be a daunting feat. First, there’s the need to tackle the language that’s full of words no longer in daily use. Then, there’s the question of time and relevance: Where do you situate the play? How do you make it relatable to today’s audience? Let’s not forget The Comedy of Errors was penned sometime in the 1590s.
In Bell Shakespeare’s latest production, director Janine Watson has overcome those challenges with a good dose of quirkiness. And the play’s humour shines amid the mishaps that come about due to the mistaken identities of two pairs of twins. Watson sets the comedy in the 1970’s on the Greek island of Ephesus, immersing the audience in a pool party-like world that brims with flare pants, palm trees and neon signs.
True to the play, Egeon (Maitland Schnaars), a merchant of Syracuse is separated from his wife Emilia (Leilani Loau), one of his twin sons and one adopted twin servant at sea. His two sons are confusingly named Antipholus (Skyler Ellis, Felix Jozeps), while their non-binary, twin servants are called Dromio (Ella Prince, Julia Billington). Years down the line, Antipholus and Dromio leave Syracuse and the company of Egeon to track down their lost brothers. Beside himself with worry, Egeon follows them and coincidentally winds up in Ephesus – the same day Antipholus and Dromio arrive there.
Two sets of twins wandering around Ephesus lead to hilarious moments of chaos and fallouts between the characters. Antipholus of Syracuse sends Dromio of Syracuse to deposit some money at an inn. When Dromio of Ephesus turns up without any recollection of the task, Antipholus beats him. Later, there’s the dinner incident. Mistaking Antipholus of Syracuse for his master, Dromio of Ephesus asks Antipholus to return home to eat with his wife Adriana (Giema Contini). When Adriana hears that Antihpolus responded by denying he had ever been married, she storms over to him and unleashes her distress in a fiery performance – her purple kaftan swinging around her body. Antipholus wonders if she’s a witch, given Ephesus’ reputation as a place of sorcery and magic.
Another smart departure from the original text is Watson’s choice to swap Adriana’s sibling from the female Luciana to Luciano. It’s a great choice that offers a fresh take on the romance between Antipholus of Syracuse and Luciano (Joseph ‘Wunujaka’ Althouse). “Sweet love” and “sweet mermaid” are among the pet names Luciano receives from the man he believes to be his sister’s husband.
But it’s not all lighthearted romance and mishap in this comic show. The start and the end are the two most moving moments. Egeon’s opening account of how his family was split many years ago summons a deep sense of loss. Such grief makes the closing scene all the more satisfying. Here, the twins confront their other halves, and finally the family is reunited.
Strong physical elements help push the comedy along. As Egeon verbally recounts the ship accident at sea, the actors use physical theatre to show the journey visually. Then, there’s the dancing to disco tunes, which reminds us that not even Shakespeare should always be taken seriously. Movement director Samantha Chester and sound designer Pru Montin have infused the production with great auditory and visual elements. Songs like Love Is In The Air evoke the atmosphere of a cruise ship, fitting of the play’s love island-esque setting.
This Australian production of an early Shakespearean play was performed well in Australian accents. The cast recited the text with ease, leaving no words to fall flat. Overall, the great dialogue, the fun, camp aesthetic and novel departures from the original text have resulted in a piece of high-quality and entertaining theatre.