Pop-up Globe, The Entertainment Quarter, Sydney
September 8, 2018

The Pop-up Globe opened its Sydney season in highly entertaining fashion with a rollicking production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, complete with Maori-speaking fairies. Now the company has popped up another Shakespearean comedy, The Comedy of Errors.

The Comedy of Errors. Photographs supplied

If Dream ventured on the broad side of subtle, you ain’t seen nothing yet. The Comedy of Errors takes pantomime and slapstick as its cue, and throws everything into the mix from a custard pie in the face, to the most obvious sexual innuendos, to ad libs like, “Is this a tatty I see before me?” along with pantomime refrains of “He IS a bailiff!” It’s broad, it’s brash and unapologetically crass at times with plenty of ridiculous, energetic buffoonery. It won’t be to everyone’s taste, though the “groundlings” seemed to enjoy it, even if there wasn’t the same amount of spontaneous feel-good interaction between stage and audience as with the Dream.

One of Shakespeare’s early, most farcical comedies, The Comedy of Errors is set during a madcap night in exotic Ephesus, where any Syracusian arriving without permission is duly executed. The Pop-up Globe production begins with black-clad thugs who work for the Duke of Ephesus (Nigel Langley) bringing two prisoners on stage in orange jumpsuits reminiscent of Guantanamo Bay. But if that disconcerting imagery sends a brief shiver down the spine it doesn’t last long.

With The Duke sporting turban, sunglasses, glittering costume and wielding a golden handgun, and his thugs asking the crowd if the prisoners should be killed, it is clear in milliseconds that even executions will be grist for the comic mill, with shrieks of laughter from the crowd as blood splatters from the first prisoner.

The second prisoner – who is in a cage – is Egeon (Greg Johnson), a Syracusian merchant who is in danger of being immolated (if only the matches will light) but The Duke agrees to hear his story. Thirty odd years ago, Egeon’s wife Emilia gave birth to twin sons, both called Antipholus. They then adopted another pair of twins, both called Dromio, as their servants.

But during a shipwreck, Egeon, one Antipholus and one Dromio were saved, while Emilia and the other twins were lost. Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse went searching for the lost pair but didn’t return so Egeon has been searching for them.

The Dromios in The Comedy of Errors

Unbeknown to him, the missing twins live in Ephesus, and the Syracusian twins looking for them have just arrived there too and disguised themselves so they won’t be executed. (Believe me, it’s easy to follow when you see it). With two identical Antipholus and Dromio pairs running around, chaos naturally ensues, with the hapless Dromios weathering endless beatings for the numerous confusions.

Pop-up Globe founding Artistic Director Miles Gregory (who also directed the Dream), injects so much slapstick in the production that he even gives the two Antipholi real sticks that bang together to (fake) beat their Dromios. There’s a very clever slow motion routine, and a brilliant shoe moment between the two Dromios, but so much of it feels naff, all-too-obvious and overdone that I rarely laughed – though others found it more amusing. And with so much physical carry-on the language sometimes gets buried.

Performed by the Southampton Company, which includes women as well as men, the acting is uneven. However, Ryan Bennett and Blake Kubena are both excellent as the two Dromios, sharing a convincingly similar performance style and throwing themselves into the full-bore physicality hurled at them by their masters Hugh Sexton as Antipholus of Syracuse and Jason Will as Antipholus of Ephesus (both sporting long black pony tails and glasses).

Stephen Lovatt as Dr Pinch in The Comedy of Errors

Matu Ngaropo gives the goldsmith Angelo a dash of camp, Stephen Lovatt is very funny and fleet-footed as the chef and the quack Dr Pinch who is accompanied by a troupe of whirling dervishes, while Amanda Billing gets lots of laughs as Emilia, the long-lost wife of Egeon who is living in Ephesus as an abbess and speaks like a member of the British Royal family.

The production gleefully embraces its low-brow bid for laughs but it verges so frequently on tacky, cheap laughs, and is all so full-bore with little light and shade, that a tad more sophistication wouldn’t go astray.

The Comedy of Errors plays in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth until November 4