Beat magazine feature
The Comedy Of Errors
The Australian Shakespeare Company Artistic Director, Glenn Elston is well-versed in bringing Shakespeare’s work to modern audiences. But even he is surprised from time to time. In his first production of The Comedy Of Errors , Elston finds the script offers more than first meets the eye.
“This is brand new,” says Elston. “I’m a Comedy Of Errors virgin. The more I work on it, the more interesting it becomes. It’s one of those plays, unlike Macbeth or Lear or Richard or [Midsummer Night's] Dream where it’s all very apparent, Comedy Of Errors you’ve got to scratch behind the surface a bit to get to it.”
The Australian Shakespeare Company aims to deliver two productions a year, one, the popular outdoor summer program, which last summer featuredA Midsummer Night’s Dream and the other, an indoor production in a theatre or interesting venue. This year, having selected The Comedy Of Errors, the company returns to the 850-seat Athanaeum theatre.
It’s a production with its own original influences. “I have never seen The Comedy Of Errors either on video or live, so when I was working on it I decided that it was such a farcical world that you needed to create a farcical, surreal and or absurd world for it to exist in. You always try to find some sort of contemporary reference to clarify things and I kept thinking it’s really like Fawlty Towers,” says Elston, explaining, “An episode begins, there’s a set up and then out of that set up there’s misunderstandings and from the misunderstandings the comedy starts to compound and the incidents start to compound and it becomes more and more complex as it goes on.
That’s exactly what Shakespeare did with this one. You’ve got two sets of identical master and servant twins and one master and servant were separated from the other very early on and they grew up in different towns. Then on the day that the play is set, one pair arrive in the town [that the other set live in] at the same time that their father is looking for them and they’re identical, so the pair that arrive keep getting mistaken for the pair that live there and so there is a rollercoaster of events that happen that are very funny and at the end you get a final twist where you find that the mother of the master twins (of course it all revolves around a shipwreck at the beginning which is how everyone has been separated) has been living in the town as a nun and she appears at the end and the whole family’s reunited.”
The script is edited by Dr. Robert Benedetti. “It’s a lot tighter, it’s a lot snappier and some of the extra script has been pared back so that the story rolls on a lot quicker – none of the actual storyline has been removed, it’s just been condensed to make it work a lot better for a modern audience,” says Elston. One major difference is that the father’s speech at the beginning of the play, which explains how the family was on a boat that was shipwrecked, has been woven throughout the play. “It’s a very clever device and that keeps that character and the duke character alive throughout the play,” says Elston.
Elston has found the edited script sets off the humour of the play. “I find with Shakespeare the more you tighten it up, the better the comedy works, especially the way this one’s written, the rhythm of it. Once you find it, he’s really telling you how to do it, that’s why we all think he’s so amazing. You reach a point where you feel like you’re finally getting it right and it’s because of the way it’s written. There’s a rhythm to it which gets you in the right place and works really well. The comedy starts to burst out of it.”
Elson has selected an experience cast in Brendan O’Connor, Simon Mallory, Terri Brabon, Ross Williams, Kevin Hopkins, Hugh Sexton, Josephine Bloom, Syd Brisbane, Adrian Dart, Tony Rive, Shireen Morris, Phil Lambert, Doru Surcel, Lisa Angove and Sally McLean. Costuming has been influenced by commedia dell’arte, and masks have been created by Ross Brown. Alicia Fernandez is the costume designer, having worked with the company in the past as a seamstress. “Working with her as a designer building the show from the ground up has been really terrific,” says Elston. “She’s brought in some really great ideas and she’s got a great sense of colour and proportion and balance. We’re drawing on commedia dell’arte and absurdity she’s having a field day – she’s really loving it.”
As for Elston himself, it’s been a big year, and doesn’t seem like being tamed just yet. “This is the fifth show that I’ve directed in six months, which is not bragging it’s just the way this year’s panned out, I frankly would have preferred to have directed about two,” he says. “This one opens on July 15 and then on July 23 we fly to Darwin, then straight down to Catherine and we do our ninth indigenous festival – a weekend festival called Walking With Spirits out in the south-west corner of Arnhem Land, then back to Darwin the next day, then fly to Edinburgh and we’ve got two shows in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.”
The Australian Shakespeare Company’s production of Shakespeare’s The Comedy Of Errors is on at the Athenaeum Theatre from Thursday July 15 to Sunday August 1.