The Comedy of Errors theatre review (Opera House, Sydney)

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The voice over the PA could have been Scott Morrison, railing against ‘boat people’. We hear it often enough. But it was an official interrogating Egeon; a Syracusan come to Ephesus in search of his son. He’s bound, a prisoner on trial, standing before a row of doors slightly reminiscent of Brighton bathing boxes given a modern twist. Above what look to be steel-and-glass doors are LED signs, spelling out things like GIRLS, MONEY CHANGE, and so on. Ephesus ain’t what it used to be in designer Pip Runciman’s hard-edged set which is even more sharply defined by David Heinrich’s industrial-strength, electronic sound composition. Both these contributors apply as much imagination and wit to their tasks as their director Imara Savage does to the whole.
In Shakespeare’s early play, first performed a few days after Christmas, 1594, when ye ol’ Bill was but 30, almost everyone is lost to each other. This is one of the tragic elements to which Savage alludes in her directorial notes. She writes: ”I’ve transported Shakespeare’s day to night and have emphasised the surreal quality of a night out in a strange city; a neon world, a place of transition and transaction.”
Speaking of transition, Savage takes a little more liberty with the Aristotelian unities to which the playwright adhered. So, there are the working girls on the street corner (though I use the term ‘girls’ advisedly). There’s the laundry scene, in which Luciana (Jude Henshall) has a kind of for-real Meg Ryan moment, sitting atop a washing-machine during spin cycle. These two transitions alone serve as a rough guide to Savage’s adaptation where the setting and context are more Emu Plains than Ephesus. Well, it’s a little more indeterminate than that; Anthony Taufa’s Duke owes something to Tony Soprano.
Egeon (Eugene Gilfedder, with mad professor hair) is an old man, looking for his long lost son, Antipholus. Well, one of his Antipholuses. He and his wife have endowed their two sons with the same name. To make matters more confusing, they’re twins. Then they adopt another two boys, also twins, both named Dromio. As you do. And so, it’s not hard to spot the motivation for the title.
Life, we’re to assume, kicks along quite splendidly in Syracuse until the family take a cruise (on the Titanic, by the sound of it) and become separated. Somehow, Emelia (Suzannah McDonald), one of the Ants and a Dromio make land again in Syracuse, while hubby, the other Ant, and Dromio end up in Ephesus. Go figure. They’re babies at the time, so it’s not until years later the Syracusan brothers wake up from their idyll by the Ionian and reflect, “Hang on a tick, didn’t we each have brothers?” Their perspicacity propels them to Ephesus.
On arrival, it’s a case of “Dromio, Dromio, where for art thou, Dromio?” This might sound hilarious and I can’t imagine a production that takes more advantage of every available laugh, but again, there are echoes of tragedy, as in familiar stories of brothers, sisters, spouses or lovers estranged. This kind of dramatic duplicity is  typical of Shakespeare and evidence of his precocity where the mistaken identities extend beyond the bewilderment of the characters to include us, the hapless audience.
This production is farcical, slapstick, vaudevillian, and peppered with expert physical comedy. Nothing could be more appropriate than Savage’s decisions to dress Solinus the Duke in a shiny suit, and reinvent Angelo the goldsmith (Demitrious Sirilas) as a hip-hop inspired, fully sick, tracky dack-wearing dude.
And when Emelia, in despair over the disappearance of her sons, gets to a nunnery, Savage has the comic temerity to make her in the image of Sister Wendy Beckett, the self-taught art penguin from television. All of these and other indulgent conceits are brilliantly executed, giving the production the broadest imaginable appeal. Its as much Benny Hill as the bard.
Mark Pennington’s lighting has a slightly sinister, cloak-and-dagger quality about it; a little like the mean streets of Cronulla after dark.
Elena Carapetis is Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus and is a kind of “Oh Moy Gawd!” Effie, in leopard prints and too much costume jewellery. She milks every comic possibility in a winning performance, approached only by her other role as her up-for-it sister, the blonde bimbo Luciana.
Septimus Caton (you’ve got to play in Shakespeare, with a name like that) as  Ant of Ephesus is bold, brash and clear as a bell with a handsome, yet pliable face for comedy. His twin is played by Nathan O’Keefe, and the late scene in which they mirror each other more than doubles their individual strengths.
Renato Musolino gives his Dromio (of Syracuse) tics and a loveable nature, while Hazem Shammas, as his twin, buys sympathy with his  put-upon servitude. Gilfedder’s brief turn as Dr Pinch, with a reverend’s collar, ZZ Top beard and shamanic is a Peter Sellers-style amusement, while his Egeon has a earnestness reminding us of the play’s pathos.
Suzannah McDonald makes for a coy, buxom courtesan, but it’s her spitting image Lady Abbess (Emelia, with newfound vocation) that’s her scene-stealer.
It’s a whore of a play, having lent itself to opera, stage, screen and musical theatre. Savage sings from a new song sheet and the melody is as fresh as a daisy. There’s a comic extravagance to this piece that teeters on going too far but the line never is never really transgressed.    
That’s what we think. Read what the other critics say.
[box]The Comedy of Errors plays the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, until 7 December. Tickets are available via Bell Shakespeare.[/box]

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