King's Shakespeare Company brings a charming and modern revival of William Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors to the stage of The Cockpit in London. A true delight to watch.
Ignoring plot, I will start with characterisation. This play held a range of characterisation and performing abilities, but a problem arose here when finding an acting style. Certain actors were highly energetic, veering towards slapstick at points and playing their role ridiculously and exaggeratedly — in a good way — whilst other actors chose to perform in a more reserved and naturalistic way. Whilst both were good, the former having the upper hand, this mix made the acting style rather confused. I suppose this did play into the absurdity of the play, but nevertheless, it did take away from the integrity of the performance. Either all characters should be physicalised realistically or as a caricature; there should never be a mixture of the two or an uncertainty in the collective acting style.
There were a few moments where certain actors seemed to stumble ever so slightly on a line or forget a predefined movement. For example, Jonathan Combey (playing Dromio of Syracuse) forgetting to duck along with the rest of the ensemble as Camille Hainsworth-Staples (playing Adriana) waves a spear in his direction. There were also moments when the language did not quite add up to the physicalisation. I would also note that Molly Gearen's (playing the Courtesan) accent was teetering on historical inaccuracy but also subtraction from the world of the play. Overall, however, a very good performance from everyone, particularly Hainsworth-Staples and Laurence Beal (playing Antipholus of Syracuse) who both performed with high and delightful energy.
Comedy was, of course, a large criterion for this play to meet, and I have to say, it was met wonderfully. The comedy was mostly achieved in the slapstick aspects of the performance but also in little peculiarities unique to this production. The decision to give the two stagehands (Owen Smith and Shaun Harper) personalities was very effective and humorous, drawing upon a metatheatrical comedy. I did feel it a little dampening, however, to have these stagehands then became extras in the play. I felt it was better to have them as independent gimmicks, an added texture to the performance to liven transitions. Although, I enjoyed that their absurdity was carried into these new personae. The sexual innuendoes were amusing, as were the lovestruck glances to the audience as characters were taken away in the hands of another. However, what made this effective was its subtle and allusive nature; hence, Adam Walker-Kavanagh's (playing Aegeon) explicit sword/phallus joke towards the end of the performance was a step too far, incurring as a result little audience response.
One large problem I had with this performance is its lack of cohesion between the dramatic text and theatrical components. This was produced predominantly by the choices of music and of costume. The use of pop music and other music which one would find at a nightclub made for a sonic layer which was far too modern. (It is also worth mentioning here that the music during transitions was often poorly operated, playing over the dialogue of entering characters when most transitions were too short and meant that music was needless, anyway). As for costume, there was a shambolic mix of period dress and modern suits...and multicoloured socks. It was simply difficult to deduce what type of world this play was attempting to be reflective of. Moreover, whilst I will note the decisive similarities between a traditional Shakespearean theatre and this production, such as the thrust stage, reminiscent of the round, the house lights, reminiscent of daylight in an open-air theatre, I must also note that this had no real effect. Additionally, there was the odd choice to have actors stand close to the audience or in the paths dividing them. Whilst these components were emulative of traditional Elizabethan playhouses, this had no effect and was hence unnecessary.
This lack of cohesion was also quite pertinent to the props used. Whilst certain properties, such as the ring and the chain, were realistic and pertinent to the period, others were most bewildering: marmite jars, keyrings and keys. It is easy to purchase items which appear olden and outmoded. Whilst the foam swords and spear could have added to the comedy, a simple de-labelling of the marmite jar and a purchase of an old-looking key could have sufficed effectively.
Certain topographical choices were also off-putting. The choice to have the Courtesan sat offstage, amongst the audience, watching the action throughout the former part of the play, for example, was one of no effect and hence one I found to be out of place. In addition to this, there was the go-to decision to have Aemilia (Aine Maher) raised behind the ensemble who then stared above the audience to symbolise their looking up at her. These are very specific choices and should be made in accordance with the performance; I felt they were not.
All of this said, this was a refreshing revival of a Shakespeare play. All actors performed with good energy and good characterisation, if a little difficult to blend together. Overall, performers seemed to understand their lines — a task quite difficult for most actors nowadays — and this must be commended. This play was most definitely an example of how good performance can carry a play, without visual effects and extravagant staging.