Even ITV’s emotive DNA-reunion show Long Lost Family has not yet featured a father of identical twins who buys another set of one-egg brothers as servants, sharing two names between the four boys, before a shipwreck splits them into matching pairs until, three decades later, both Antipholus-Dromio combinations coincide in the same duchy.
The plot of The Comedy of Errors is so preposterous that it is has often been categorised as, both generically and pejoratively, Shakespeare’s joke play.
But, while Phillip Breen’s new Royal Shakespeare Company staging is exhaustingly funny, it also touches on deeper distresses about identity and reality. Scenes in which a man is barred from his house because he is already dining with his wife inside, or a woman receives a marriage proposal from a brother-in-law who insists he has just met her, anticipate the illogical possibilities of Kafka, Lewis Carroll, and doppelganger and clone thrillers.
The show launches an RSC outdoor season in the new Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Garden theatre, a 500-seater pop-up – Covid-secure but with a risk of sunburn or rain – resembling a Greek amphitheatre made with steel and red plastic bucket chairs.
The text’s revelation that Ephesus and Syracuse have recently closed their borders relates to trade and possibly faith disputes (this production subtly delineates cultures) but, with integrated use of surgical masks and hand gel, there is the additional possibility here of travel “red listing.”
Breen and movement director Charlotte Broom grab every possible gag. The innocuous words “to pay” trigger inspired business with a male hairpiece; Zoe Lambert’s Aemelia and Avita Jay’s Luciana uproariously talk while contorted, including doggedly downward, by yoga.
Despite debates over appropriate casting, directors are not obligated to find two actual sets of identical twins for The Comedy of Errors, but Guy Lewis/Rowan Polonski (Antipholus) and Jonathan Broadbent/Greg Haiste (Dromio) splendidly manage the balance of showing who’s who while keeping Ephesian confusion plausible. In a doubling not envisaged by Shakespeare, William Grint and Dyfrig Morris share a striking interpretation of the 2nd Merchant.
After a period in which The Comedy of Errors has been busy as a headline on the government, the RSC gloriously reclaims it for theatre.