8. The Comedy of Errors
Comedy of Errors is the first of the plays I have read so far in this challenge that I had no prior experience of. All of the others I have seen, read or even directed before, whereas Comedy of Errors I literally just knew it had two sets of twins in it and that it was a comedy (or, at least, I guessed it was from the title).
There was something really refreshing about reading a Shakespeare play without preconception or foreknowledge. It’s not something that you get to do very often. There’s the old adage that you should treat Shakespeare like a piece of new writing and new writing like a piece of Shakespeare, but in reality it is very hard to do this because you’re working through so many layers of learnt experience and expectation. (It’s much the same when working on a lot of the classic literary adaptations that I make with Cyphers. In fact, that’s part of the company’s raison d’etre – to push through the assumptions and preconceptions to the human story beneath.) So, to read a Shakespeare for the first time with essentially no expectations or assumptions was a really special experience.
I have to say, I really enjoyed Comedy of Errors and can only assume it is so little performed because of the difficulty of finding two sets of actors who can believably pull off the two sets of twins in the story. This is the central challenge of the play, since all the action is so dependent on the repeated mistaking of one twin for the other, it has to be believable (within the realms of suspended disbelief) that someone would actually do this. Whilst at the same time, it is probably helpful for the audience to be able to tell one set of twins from the other – both so that they can follow the story and so that they get a sense of being ‘in on the joke’.
Whether the audience need to be able to tell one set of twins from the other is a question I find interesting. It’s very difficult when reading the script to know how important this is because you are reading the character names as you go so you can’t help but know which twin is which. I think it is something that could only be worked out in the room. There’s definitely a version where the audience is just as confused as to who is who as the characters are. This would either work brilliantly or be so confusing that you’d completely switch off.
My instinct on creating the twins is that a bit of clever costuming and make-up would make the twins fairly convincing – especially if the style was a bit more abstract or heightened. As long as the actors are vaguely comparable sizes and shapes, I think you could create the illusion of identical twins relatively easily.
It’s very interesting working through Shakespeare’s plays in order because you see the development in his style and confidence. Compared to The Taming of the Shrew (thought to be his first), this is a much more accomplished piece of comedy writing (in my opinion!). He borrows from commedia (as he did with Shrew) but here he makes it his own and uses situational comedy so that we’re far less reliant on the words. This is another reason why I’m surprised the play isn’t staged more today, as mistaken identity and people talking at crossed purposes is essentially always going to be funny! It is silly and it makes no attempt to be profound in any way and this simplicity is its strength. It is a light-hearted piece of slap-stick comedy and it does that really well.
It’s for moments like this that I wanted to do this Shakespeare challenge: to force myself to encounter plays I wouldn’t necessarily have read otherwise and to better understand Shakespeare’s development as a writer. It was great fun reading Comedy of Errors and I’d thoroughly like to have a go at directing it in the future.