Chester’s Grosvenor Park is normally teeming with playgoers over the summer months, with performances of two Shakespeare plays and a classical children’s book booking up year after year. All changed in 2020, unsurprisingly – but director Alex Clifton managed to band together a cast of eight for two weeks of intensive zoom rehearsals, which culminated in a fast paced and surprisingly polished socially distanced performance of The Comedy of Errors. Stewards ushered audience members to their seats and ensured they were suitably distanced from fellow theatre goers with the help of a six foot pole, which certainly brought new meaning to the phrase “wouldn’t go near you with a barge pole”! Once seated, however, it was easy to forget about the distancing measures as masks were not required in the open air and the actors leapt around the stage so quickly that it was hardly noticeable that they never actually touched.
The plot, in brief, hinges around two sets of twins, Antipholus of Ephesus and Antipholus of Syracuse, and their servants, both called Dromio. They grew up in different countries after being separated in a shipwreck whilst young and the play begins with Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant arriving in Ephesus on a mission to find their respective siblings. A day of confusion and mistaken identity ensues with the servants and masters confusing each other, a wife locking her husband out under the impression he is someone else, and a debt collector sending the wrong Antipholus to jail. Naturally, all is resolved in the final scene when the siblings appear onstage together.
As with almost every Shakespeare comedy, the exaggerated slapstick could be a little repetitive; directors are often fearful that their audience might not understand the Shakespearian language, so resort to non-stop physical comedy to try to guarantee an easy laugh. However, the direction had to be a little more imaginative with a socially distanced cast, and so even the standard visual gags had something more to them in this performance. The Comedy of Errors is full of fight scenes as both Dromios repeatedly become the victims of their masters, the politics of which can be uncomfortable for the audience. This was alleviated by wild kicks and punches at a two metre distance, accompanied by well-timed bashing of pots and pans for the sound effects, which meant that the fight scenes became not only more entertaining but felt far less uneasily violent. A combination of more imaginative slapstick and the stripped-back script saved the production from becoming overly reliant on repetitive physical comedy, and made Shakespeare’s shortest comedy an even faster and more exciting piece.
The casting of two sets of identical twins for the main characters (Danielle and Nicole Bird playing the two Antipholuses and Lowri and Mari Izzard the Dromios), worked on both a visual and an emotional level. Distinguishable only by their accents, I spent the first ten minutes wondering if it was just the same actor running on and off stage every scene and trying to spot differences in their costumes to prove it one way or the other. However, by the final scene this casting offered something more than breezy entertainment and occasional confusion. Although at its core the production was a slapstick comedy – complete with country covers of pop songs and audience interaction – the final scene of the play was a reminder of the times we live in. The two sets of twins were reunited and, as members of the same family and household, were able to hug each other. Shakespeare often places a great deal of importance on familial bonds in his comedies, which seems particularly appropriate these days. The final line of the play is spoken by Dromio of Ephesus to his brother: “and now let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.” The cast then left the stage with the siblings holding hands, a moment of familial affection which felt much more poignant than the socially distanced punch ups and Scooby Doo style chase scenes which had gone before. No one really knows when theatre, or in fact life, will return to normal, but until then scenes like these will hold even more significance for audiences eager to see their own families again.