I have never seen such an appalling, insensitive and tasteless production of Comedy of Errors as the one staged recently by the Bell Shakespeare Company. Mind you, I've never actually seen a production of Comedy of Errors before this one. But, even if I had, I am certain I would still stand by my statement. The whole thing was crass, rushed, gimmicky and tin-eared.
To open the production, we were presented with a sinister, fluorescent-lit immigration hall, administered by an unseen official, who directed a brace of black-uniformed, batoned thugs. The mood was bleak, evoking Guantanamo and Australia's asylum seeker politics. Could it be possible that a new, dark menace was going to be drawn from the play on this occasion, I wondered.
No, as it turned out. This was just a bit of window-dressing. Having established her right-on credentials, , in the next scene the director, Imara Savage, changed gear completely. She achieved this with all the adroitness of someone trained solely on a manual, lurching abruptly into an attempt at rapid-fire, visual farce in which no character was sympathetic and all were grotesques. The males became, variously, idiots, chavs or knuckle-dragging, squash-faced drongoes, the women were warped into harsh-voiced harpies, obsessed with designer handbags, spray tans and bling.
Whether out of embarrassment or under directorial instruction, all the actors rattled off their lines as speedily as possible, taking no apparent pleasure in the words themselves. Dromio of Ephesus's football speech was gabbled so quickly it disappeared before anyone had a chance to notice its wit; Adriana was transformed into so shallow and meanspirited a creature that the pathos of such lines as, "I at home starve for a merry look" and "My decayed fair/A sunny look of his would soon repair; But, too unruly deer, he breaks the pale/ And feeds from home" evaporates before it even has a chance to come into existence. Lovely phrases such as "mountain of mad flesh" and "great pails of puddled mire" and "Time's deformed hand" were swept away in the rush.
The audience lost the poetry but gained a whirlwind of high heels and handbags, swinging doors and duels using ping-pong bats, (while the lines referred to swords?!?) The piece de resistance - or the final insult - arrived when the stage was daubed with half a dozen deposits of sick. From that moment forward, it was impossible - at least I found it so - to concentrate on anything except the fear that one of the actors would tread in one or other of the yellowish, carrot flecked pools.
The comedy of The Comedy of Errors is at its best when the poetry of the play is also brought out. As a farce of mistaken identity it is worthless unless the word play, the meditations on time and ageing and on love and the role of appearance that lie within the farce are allowed to be heard. This production decided to make the work less complex than it actually is and, for me, that made it less interesting. Vulgarity replaced wisdom. Slapstick replaced a sense of the absurdity of human existence. The result was immeasurably less appealing than the text from which it sprang.