Enjoying Shakespeare in the Botanic Gardens has been a Melbourne summer tradition for 35 years, but it’s probably never been more welcome in this second summer of COVID. Not only are audiences more mentally at ease seeing theatre outdoors, they also don’t need to think too hard for The Comedy of Errors, an early Shakespeare play that’s relatively light on poetry and philosophy and big on silly situations. This timely choice by Australian Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Glenn Elston, who also directs, is presented with commedia dell’arte tradition wrapped up in more modern surrealist-pantomime fun, which dials up the ‘don’t worry, be happy’ attitude.
The Comedy of Errors brings together not one but two sets of identical twins over the course of a day filled with farcical confusion. This premise of mistaken identity is underpinned by identical costumes for the twins called Antipholus, and for their servants, twins called Dromio. These include the latters’ big fuzzy yellow gloves, and even bigger shaggy orange feet handily fashioned from industrial brooms for the two Antipholus. It’s all part of the visual delight that costume designer Karla Erenbots splashes around through bright colours and ostentatious patterns and textures.
There are also identical facial prosthetics, inspired by the big-nosed half-masks of Italy’s centuries-old commedia dell’arte. The two Dromios get giant ears too, but interestingly most of the cast also wear prosthetics that exaggerate features, especially cartoonishly sized and angled noses. This is all not so much about disguise then as good old-fashioned fun, which continues in Greg Carroll’s set. Overlaid with a kooky hand-drawn black-and-white cartoon concisely representing the town of Ephesus, the two-storey structure has numerous doors and windows so cast members can pop in and out with breezy comic ease.
Barely restrained comedy is the priority for most of the cast. Hugh Sexton brings an insouciant charm to the unmarried, out-of-town Antipholus of Syracuse, opposite Peter Houghton’s aggrieved, married Antipholus of Ephesus. The Dromios are full of energy, particularly slapstick tumbler Thomas Pidd, but Shakespeare veteran Syd Brisbane also showcases his well-honed comic skills. As sisters Luciana and Adriana, Madeleine Somers and Elizabeth Brennan literally wheel out their exaggerated voices and facial expressions on roller skates and rollberblades.
Most of the supporting cast hams it up, particularly Maverick Newman who channels every grand dame of the English stage in the small denouement role of Emelia. A notable exception to the tomfoolery is Dion Mills. He brings a gentle gravitas to proceedings as Egeon, who intermittently describes the twins’ backstory while facing execution.
It may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but this Comedy of Errors is certainly an enjoyable romp suitable for most ages thanks to this production’s minimal bawdy humour. It’s colourful, quirky, energetic and fast-paced, clocking up no more than 100 minutes on stage for the performance I attended. The night ended well short of the advertised time of two hours and 20 minutes, including interval, but a fast farce is probably a good one, and certainly helps kids enjoy Shakespeare.
Australian Shakespeare Company’s The Comedy of Errors continues at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Gardens until 19 February.