The Rose’s 90-minute production of one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies was performed with great gusto by a well-meaning cast. Although there were some hilarious moments, overall the production was predictable, from the props to the costumes to casting decisions, which suggests an amateur company that is still getting their feet off the ground.
The Rose, Bankside is a tiny theatre on the precipice of the archaeological site of the original Rose theatre, built in 1587. The audience sits on three sides level with the thrust stage where the back of the playing space forms the balcony. One can make out the red lights that signify the boundaries of the ancient playhouse. The makeshift theatre contains large placards behind the centre audience’s seats that explain the history of the Rose and is no doubt used for daily tours and the exhibition. A projector screen behind the audience to the right portrays a map of Syracuse, Ephesus and the ocean between them. It was difficult to see all of the action from the left side of the stage, even though we were in the first row, probably due to the thin rectangular area that was afforded to the actors. However, the ensemble made do and was not physically inhibited by the limited space.
The Comedy of Errors is farcical, frivolous, and confusing. Antipholus of Syracuse is in search of his identical twin brother, Antipholus of Ephesus, and is treated with respect and familiarity when he enters the portly town of Ephesus, with his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, who also happens to have a twin brother, Dromio of Ephesus, who is servant to the other twin. Confused yet? Exactly. The play opens with Egeon of Syracuse –father to both Antipholuses, and adopted father to the Dromios— who tells the story of his family on a boat headed to Ephesus when the bark is split in two, severing him from his wife and the twins from their identicals. As one Antipholus runs around Ephesus avoiding his wife, fawning on his mistress and buying jewellery, the other is persuaded to dine with a woman (Adriana) who calls him husband and ends up falling in love with her sister (Luciana). The plot thickens when the jeweller (Angelo) gives his necklace to the wrong Antipholus and the other twin ends up in jail for not paying the fee. But not to worry, by the end of the play, both sets of twins appear on stage together and Egeon is reunited with his sons and his long lost wife. The problem with mounting this Elizabethan farce is the plot of mistaken identity has become tiresome and unrealistic in a modern age, making it difficult to renovate and keep afresh for contemporary audiences.
Since the plot is stretched thin, it is also easy for many actors to fall into the trap of playing their characters as two-dimensional caricatures of the Commedia dell’Arte persuasion, withholding the humanity and depth hidden beneath their veneer. For example, Adriana, Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, is suspicious that he has been cheating on her and afraid he is no longer interested in their marriage. Her causes for concern are verified when she mistakes his twin as her husband and he claims he doesn’t know her. The comedy in her character is her over-reactions and hysterics to her predicament twinned with an underlying pain and sadness (much like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra) and when exposed, this allows the audience to simultaneously laugh and sympathise with her. While Elizabeth Bloom’s portrayal of Adriana was filled with theatrical sighs, gasps, and extreme levels of highs and lows, giving the audience many reasons to laugh, the laughter seemed shallow and without substance. This followed on with the rest of the actors, who catered to the demands of the humour with silly moustaches, toilet jokes and slapstick. Director David Pearce relied on conventional gags and situational comedy to make the play work, while missing the reality behind the play, and the chance for some more clever physical comedy to take place. However, I have no doubt that the potential for professional work is there. The commitment and ferocity with which each actor attacked their part is testimony to the possibility for a dynamic theatre company to take shape.
In fact, after the production, a gentleman from the company acted as an impromptu guide and spoke about the future plans for the Rose; how with enough funds they will be able to seal the archaeological site with a glass floor and build a permanent theatre space on top of it. That being said, the Rose and its company will no doubt grow to give The Globe the healthy competition it deserves.