When this impressive, wooden replica of a 16th-century royal theatre opened last summer, the Observer’s architecture critic, Rowan Moore, described it as “a hybrid of the authentic and the improvised… of the scholarly and the popular and of ancient and modern”. So it is. So, also, is this latest comedy produced on – and around – its “wooden O” of a stage.
Writers Elizabeth Godber and Nick Lane have, in the words of the programme, “messed around with” Shakespeare. The bard’s two sets of separated identical twins are no longer from Syracuse and Ephesus but from two warring towns distinguished by their baking (eccles cakes v parkin) and their accents: Prescot v Scarborough (this is a co-production with the latter’s Stephen Joseph theatre). Deftly delivered lines slip easily between contemporary speech and Elizabethan English, elisions made seamless, more or less, by Lane’s modern versification (the goldsmith Angelo fears “suppliers [who]/ Extract late payment with pliers”).
Women feature more strongly than in the original. Partly through cross-gender role switching, but mostly in expanded scenes between sisters Adriana (Alyce Liburd), whose errant husband is Scarborough Antipholus (David Kirkbride), and Luciana (Ida Regan), confused and horrified to be courted by Prescot Antipholus (Peter Kirkbride). The relationships between and among all the female characters are richly textured, giving them an unforced parity with their male counterparts – a great achievement, credited to Godber (more or less).
The funny, frenetic action is punctuated by 80s pop hits – not least a particularly fine rendering of Uptown Girl. Those members of the excellent ensemble who do not play twins double up on other roles and also become backing singers and/or dancers and/or chorus-narrators who fill us in on character backstories and keep us up to speed with convolutions of plot (or try to; it ain’t easy). Paul Robinson’s ringmaster-tight direction loosens its hold a little in the second half, which, in this early performance, feels overshouty and rushed.
If this thoroughly engaging production is lesser in anything, it’s the sense of danger underpinning Shakespeare’s comedy; also, therefore, its correlate – the sheer joy in (re)union and togetherness. That said, it more than fulfils the writers’ ambition, stated in the programme, to give the audience “a really great fun night”.
The Comedy of Errors (more or less) is at the Shakespeare North Playhouse, Prescot, until 25 March, then at the Stephen Joseph theatre, Scarborough, 30 March to 15 April