Playhouse, August 19


A particular joy of Janine Watson’s lively production of The Comedy of Errors is the way Skyler Ellis and Julia Billington catch all the guilelessness of Antipholus and Dromio of Syracuse. The charm of their rustic naivety when thrust into the shifty, cosmopolitan dealings of Ephesus is among the elements that rescues this early Shakespeare play from an especially banal breed of absurdism.

And it needs all the rescuing it can get. Were it not for their charm, the comedy’s dark opening and some timelessly funny lines strewn throughout, we would sit the pondering the improbability of two pairs of identical twins in which each twin has the same name and happens to be dressed identically after being separated for three decades.

Ella Prince and Julia Billington. Top: Joseph Althouse, Julia Billington and Skyler Ellis. Photos: Brett Boardman.

But then the play’s hardly built for logical scrutiny. Pinched by Shakespeare from Plautus, the story thrives on the zaniness of its coincidences, while stretching the comedic potential of mistaken identity so far beyond accepted breaking points that the audience can only run with it – and, in a welcome return to form (and performing, period) for Bell Shakespeare, Watson’s production sets a cracking pace.

Often directors burden Shakespeare’s comedies with a furrowed-brow insistence on making them funny at all costs, but Watson’s touch is lighter than that, and the sight gags never feel like an imposition. She has relocated the play to the 1970s disco scene, and Hugh O’Connor’s design delights in lurid colours, flares, pointy-collared shirts and mirror-balls. Indeed, were the characters taking drugs rather than wine, the whole tale could pass as a mass hallucination. Instead, choreographed by Samantha Chester, the actors jive away amusingly to Pru Montin’s disco choices as they change the set between scenes.

The play’s marvellous opening, however, is mishandled. Shakespeare essentially played a trick on his audience by setting up a life-and-death scenario for poor Egeon, the father of the Antipholus twins, who in coming to Ephesus searching for his offspring, has inadvertently committed a capital crime. It’s a bit like coming to Australia as a boat person. Alas, Maitland Schnaars as Egeon and Alex King as the Duke make the scene too wooden, building no tension for the subsequent comedy to puncture.

Felix Joseps, Alex King, Lauren Richardson and Maitland Schnaars. Photos: Brett Boardman.

Nonetheless, Watson salvages something from the beginning by having the players act out Egeon’s story in dumb-show, thereby introducing us to all the characters before they speak a word. The Steven Berkoff-like slow-motion depiction of the shipwreck that splintered Egeon’s family is notably effective.

If Ellis and Billington are the show’s comic epicentre, their Ephesian equivalents, Felix Jozeps and Ella Prince, credibly cast in terms of looks, also offer entertaining performances, even if they can’t quite solve the conundrum of how to make their characters more knowing without also making them too arch. Giema Contini looks like a hippy fortune-teller as Antipholus of Ephesus’ overwrought wife, Adriana, while Leilani Loau takes hippy mysticism to an altogether higher plane as Dr Pinch. Joseph “Wunujaka” Althouse and Lauren Richardson complete the tight cast of 10.

Egeon and the Duke apart, the characters are well drawn, and the production makes a minor gem of what will always be a play that’s as silly as it is delightful. The decision to use a double-sided mirror as the front door when Antipholus of Ephesus is locked out of his home, with one Dromio on either side, is inspired. The ending is handled well, too, with the two Dromios so much more enchanted by each other than the Antipholuses.

Until September 17.