The Comedy of Errors – 1991
Director Michael G Williamson
‘We came into the world like brother and brother and now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another’
On the night of 28th December, 1594, the Christmas Revels were proceeding in the Hall of Gray’s Inn, in London. These festivities usually lasted from 20th December until Ash Wednesday and would have been led by the traditional Lord of Misrule.
On this particular occasion, matters got rather out of hand and a performance planned for the evening had to be cancelled. Finally, ‘it was thought good not to offer anything of account saving dancing and revelling with gentlewomen; and after such sports a comedy of errors (like to Plautus, his Menaechmus), was played by the players’. A near riot broke out after the performance and the night continued to the end, ‘in nothing but confusion and errors; whereupon it was ever afterwards called “The Night of Errors”! A mock enquiry was held on the following day into the “great Disorders and Abuses lately done and committed”.’
This appears to be the first reference to a performance of William Shakespeare’s ‘The Comedy of Errors’, which was certainly largely based on Plautus’ comedy ‘Menaechmi’. This would date the play among Shakespeare’s earlier works, possibly written at any date between 1590 and 1594. As his shortest play, it would have been very appropriate for an evening entertainment.
It has been noted that, although this is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to use the term ‘Comedy’ in the title, many critics have wanted to categorise it as pure farce, thereby dismissing it as unworthy of serious consideration. It would be very difficult to deny that many of the characteristics of farce are there, largely drawn from the principal sources but, by the introduction of such characters as Egeon and /Emilia, Shakespeare manages to create a very acceptable hybrid which has been consistently popular with audiences over the years.
Ten years after the first known performance, the play was being performed again as part of the Christmas festivities at the court of King James I. A variety of versions have followed, with Directors in the eighteenth century providing many variant interpretations and more modern productions looking for all kinds of different viewpoints.
It has often been set to music, was once sung as an operetta and many will be familiar with the musical version of Rodgers and Hart, ‘The Boys from Syracuse’.
The play makes use of the conventional setting of academic drama, with three ‘houses1 being presented throughout, ie ‘The House of the Porcupine’, ‘The House of the Phoenix1 and The Priory. We felt, therefore, that it was an appropriate choice for the George Courtyard and, as far as possible, our presentation this evening will be a traditional one.
Looking at ‘The Comedy of Errors’ in the light of Shakespeare’s later work, we can identify it as an experimental piece in which he allowed himself to be influenced by previous styles more completely than he ever would again. We have the structure of the standard Roman Comedy with English amendments. The Latin classics were, of course, popular in English grammar schools at this time and Shakespeare would certainly have studied them as a boy. The play may not seem quite as mature in literary style as in dramatic craft, but it certainly does not lack stylistic variety.
Although it is true to say that much of the plot is derived from Plautus, it is important to note that Shakespeare added much to this basic source and created a play of more ingenious complexity. The invention of the twin Dromios, providing a second set of twins, increases the intellectual complications of the action and, perhaps more important in the overall structure of the play (especially from an emotional point of view), is the decision to enclose the main action within the framework of a serious story.
The requirement for two sets of believable male twins can be a headache for any director. The current production at the Barbican has evaded this difficulty by very effective doubling but the geography of the George unfortunately prohibits this. Shakespeare was, of course, father to twins, a boy Hamnet who was to die aged 11 in 1596, and a daughter, Judith who lived on until 1662, dying at the age of 77.
The Comedy of Errors is unique among Shakespeare’s plays in the way localities are indicated. It preserves unity of time and place.
The entire action takes place in the City of Ephesus, a fantastical place reputedly peopled with ‘nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, soul killing witches that deform the body . . .’This city would be associated with the travels of St Paul and the cult of Diana and, although Shakespeare introduces a Christian Priory, the pagan mystery still remains.
The action also takes place at one particular time. The period of one day from morning until sunset. It would also appear that, originally, it was intended to run from scene to scene without interruption.
This will be the first time that ‘The Comedy of Errors’ has been presented at the George. It has been an enjoyable play to present and we hope that you will find that it provides an appropriate entertainment for the George Courtyard.
SOLINUS, DUKE OF EPHESUS David Oxlee
EGEON, A MERCHANT OF SYRACUSE Jack Hyde
ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS, TWIN SONS OF EGEUS David Crosby
ANTIPHOLUS OF SYRACUSE Jeremy Bentharn
DROMIO OF EPHESUS, TWIN SERVANTS OF EACH ANTIPHOLUS Paul Smith
DROMIO OF SYRACUSE Derren Plows
ANGELO, A GOLDSMITH OF EPHESUS Eric Usher
BALTHASAR, A MERCHANT OF EPHESUS Dominic Whitehead
FIRST MERCHANT OF EPHESUS Nick Hemens
SECOND MERCHANT OF EPHESUS Andrew Roberts
DOCTOR PINCH, A CONJURER Peter Sawford
CAPTAIN OF THE EPHESIAN Guard Willie Wilson
EPHESIAN GUARDS Graeme Hammond, Peter Vialls, Chris Hough
SERVANT TO ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS Tim Gunnell
EMILIA, ABBESS OF THE PRIORY IN EPHESUS Mo Pearce
ADRIANA, WIFE TO ANTIPHOLUS OF EPHESUS Yvonne Coen
LUCIANA, HER SISTER Lindsey Brown
THE COURTESAN Martine Peuleve
LUCE, MAID TO ADRIANA Jo Ward
NELL, COOK TO ADRIANA Trish James
MAID, TO ADRIANA Sharon Reed
ATTENDANT TO COUTESAN Emma Langdale
COURTESANS, WOMEN OF EPHESUS, NUNS Gill Butler, Margaret Sawford, Janet Vialls, Jo Gray, Helen Haynes, Nicola Gunton
Director Michael G Williamson
Stage Manager John Morgan
Set Design Colin Chalk
Musical Director Michael Black
Assistant Stage Manager Tanzy Lee
Set Construction Nigel Callaghan and Team
Stage Crew Chris Hunnam, Peter Levitt, Bob Pugh, Alex Schieber, Paul Robinson
Design and Creation of Chain Rosie Austen
Properties Rachael Tonge, Fiona Saunderson and Team
Continuity Vivienne Dyer
Lighting Malcolm Lyons, Mel Pugsley, Tierce Britton, Andy Kendon, Roger Blackmore, Daryl Fleming, Pat Hamilton, Ruth Taylor
Sound Gerry Davison, Hazel Ainscough
Sound Equipment SJC Services
Fight Arranger Bob Pugh
Make-up Trisha James, Linda Morgan, Jan Sheppeard and Team
Costume Design Wendy Usher
Wardrobe Team Trish James, Jan Sheppeard, Terry Dick, Mo Pearce, Jo Fradley, Wendy Usher, Vivienne Dyer
Photographs Simon Ellis ABIPP AMPA
Lighting Equipment JPL Lighting
Publicity Martine Peulevé
Front of House and Sales Cheryl Cook, Michael Cook, Mike Hall and Team
Poster Design Andrew Goold
Incidental Music played during the performance has been specially composed for Shakespeare at The George by Michael Black
Musicians Claire Stephenson, Lindsey Haynes, David Walters, Ken Richards, Tim Gunnell, Emma Cusworth