A hurried execution is about to take place in a dark and decaying city. The fearful victim pleads on his knees for death to end his suffering. It’s an unusual way to start a comedy.
Thankfully, Dominic Cooke is a sure-handed director who can flip tone on a tuppence.
Because “The Comedy of Errors” at the National Theatre in London starts in an atmosphere of terror the subsequent comic mishaps are all the sharper and funnier. It doesn’t hurt that Lenny Henry, a former comedian, is in top form playing the lead role of a man continually mistaken for his lost twin brother.
Cooke sets Shakespeare’s farce in a dark, teeming version of contemporary London. Luxury flats loom over dank alleys. Low-lifes hang about in snooker halls. Bunny Christie’s huge set revolves and twirls to reveal lively side streets, a brothel and a smart private health clinic.
This is Ephesus, an insular city in which it is punishable by death to be a Syracusan like Antipholus (Lenny Henry).
Amid this danger, he has come to seek his long-lost identical twin, also called Antipholus (Chris Jarman). To help matters, they have identical twin servants who are both called Dromio (Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser).
Well they would, wouldn’t they?
Cooke stages a luxuriously spectacular piece of introductory exposition involving a sea storm, a shipwreck, and rescue helicopters, to make the background crystal clear.
After this visual feast, the puns, sight gags and mistaken identities come thick and fast.
Henry plays his Antipholus as a Nigerian innocent, lost in the big city. He milks West African speech patterns and superstitious gestures to superb comic effect.
His brother is a wealthy merchant who uses the melodious British accent known as Received Pronunciation. It’s a neat way of taking a side look at the situation of immigrants, who face choices of identity and assimilation every day.
There isn’t a weak link in the cast. Claudie Blakley is amusingly seductive as Adriana, wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, who dresses in the loud-colored and high-heeled style called “hooker chic.” Michelle Terry, as her sister Luciana, does a terrific line in double takes and confused gestures.
All this and real heart too. When the twins are eventually reunited with their parents, and Henry’s Antipholus declares his love for Luciana, the force of their emotions is touching and fully earned.
The National Theatre already has transferred its hit comedy “One Man, Two Guvnors” to the West End. Maybe they’ll be able to twin it with this even funnier and deeper “Comedy of Errors.” Rating: ****.
One of a director’s jobs is to make sure all the actors inhabit the same theatrical universe, whether it be realistic, or stylized, or whatever. Cooke has proved his chops in this department. Soprano Catherine Malfitano has some way to go.
On the plus side, her period-costume production of Puccini’s “Tosca” at English National Opera tells the story with straightforward clarity. On the minus, it’s full of details that work against the plausibility.
Scarpia’s fake blood leaves Tosca’s dress miraculously clean, even though he has supposedly been bleeding all over her for 15 bars of music. Then, after two broadly naturalistic sets, the third act takes place on what looks like a concrete skateboard ramp. A risibly bad fight sequence has as much energy as milk curdling.
Claire Rutter overcomes it all with a performance of memorable vocal splendor and subtle acting, and her top Cs soar out with thrilling ease. Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones (Cavaradossi) sings up a storm too, and Stephen Lord’s conducting is meaty and bold.
They make it still worth catching, even if Anthony Michaels-Moore’s Scarpia is underpowered and unconvincing in his lower notes. Rating: **.
“The Comedy of Errors” is in repertory at the National Theatre, sponsored by KPMG LLP. Information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk or +44-20-7452-3000. “Tosca” is in repertory at ENO, http://www.eno.org or +44-871-911-0200.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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