Pros: Great slapstick fused with clever puns.
Cons: The performance area was poorly lit.
The historical significance of the Rose Theatre can never be underestimated. Within spitting distance of the Globe, it was the first purpose-built playhouse to ever stage a production of any of Shakespeare’s plays. Moreover, it predates the Globe by 12 years and has a firm place in Britain’s theatrical heritage. The entrance to the theatre is little more than a hole in the wall and could be easily missed if you don’t know the area. Passing through a black curtain, I was amazed by the lack of space for performers and patrons alike. The original foundations of the theatre are marked out by red neon strip lighting, which is just visible from the perimeter balcony. Despite these perceived difficulties, the Groundlings Theatre Company does more than justice to the legendary farce of mistaken identity. The six strong cast work brilliantly with the space available, using nothing more than half a dozen wooden boxes as props.
The story begins with Egeon, merchant of Syracuse, sentenced to death in Ephesus for breaching the embargo on travel between the rival cities. En route to execution, he tells Ephesian Duke Solinus of the quest to find his wife and one of his twin sons separated in a shipwreck 25 years previously. The Duke is so moved by the story that he grants Egeon one day to raise the thousand mark ransom necessary to save his life. We subsequently learn the twins are identical and both called Antipholus and each has an identical twin slave named Dromio. Antipholus of Syracuse visits Ephesus with his slave, unaware that his missing twin is a prosperous citizen of the city. So follows a trail of chaos caused by mistaken identity and confusing propositions.
At around 90 minutes, the Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays. Nevertheless, the story packs a wealth of visual and verbal gags into the time available. The star of the show is undoubtedly Helen Oakleigh as Dromio, who carries the role off with a mischievous, playful confidence. Anna Mallard shows great comic timing in the role of Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus. Emma Uden is an excellent foil playing Adriana’s sister Luciana. At one point, a door fell off from part of the set, and both used the incident to great improvised effect. Mark Flynn is hugely likable as Antipholus, while Oliver Gyani and Stuart Frank play nine other roles with great aplomb.
While justification for using the Rose as a venue is undeniable, it is a challenging space to work in. The foundations have to be submerged in water to stop them cracking. Therefore, it’s always very cold. This is fine in mid-July, but can’t see the fun in having to wrap up in a blanket to watch a show during the autumn/winter. The lack of space on the balcony perimeter makes it a challenge to perform in. I can only pay tribute to the skill and ingenuity of the cast for adapting to the unusual space.