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September Books 12) A Comedy of Errors

12) A Comedy of Errors, by William Shakespeare

I dimly remember the Rowan Atkinson sketch where he is a schoolmaster trying to beat respect for English literature into the heads of a host of invisible and improbably named schoolboys. One of the great lines is when he insists that there is only one joke in Shakespeare, and it is in A Comedy of Errors, when "Two people look like each other. Twice." Pause. "It's not that funny!"

Well, actually, it is that funny. It's a much shorter play than the histories I've read/listened to so far; it's a bit more original, in that Shakespeare has boiled together bits of Plautus (who was also pretty funny in his day) to produce a mock-classical, proto-pantomime slapstick piece.

The only time I ever saw it staged was a student production in Cambridge, with the twins played by two rather than four actors, simply reversing their neckties to show if they were Syracusan or Ephesian, the whole thing done with excellent jazz in the background, I think in Christ's College (somewhere over there anyway, maybe Sidney Sussex or Emmanuel). The bloke who played the two Antipholuses was excellent; I wonder what he is doing now?

Anyway, the play itself relies on the stable foundation of farce, where we the audience know what is going on but the characters don't; two visitors to Ephesus get mistaken for their long-lost twin brothers who are local residents, and hilarity ensues. The key to the mystery is held by their father, who appears only in the first scene and the last, to set the scene for us and then to help resolve matters. Shakespeare himself was the father of twins, born in 1585, though they were not identical, being a boy and a girl. Still, I imagine it gave him a certain inspiration as he wrote this play in the early to mid 1590s.

The key drama in the play is the story of the visiting Antipholus of Syracuse, who finds that though a complete stranger, Adriana, incomprehensibly claims him as her husband, he is much more attracted to her sister Luciana. (His twin, the local Antipholus of Ephesus, seems to be much more of a bastard; and their servants, the two Dromios, are basically clowns.) There are other bits of tension, mainly to do with arbitrary justice and summary execution, but that is the main plot. With the right people, it can work very well.

In the Arkangel version I've been listening to, David Tennant turns in yet another great performance as Antipholus of Syracuse, doing his English accent. The Ephesians are all Irish - Adriana and Luciana played by two of the Cusack sisters (Niamh and Sorcha), and a generally well-chosen run of accents populating the town - Pauline McLynn, for instance, is the Courtesan. Most gloriously, the sorcerous Dr Pinch is played with an Ulster accent, clearly intended to be reminiscent of Ian Paisley. It's almost worth listening to for his brief scenes alone.

Anyway, it's short but sweet, and reminds me that I'm listening to these plays not just because they are classics but because most of them are very good.
Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love's Labour's Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night's Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All's Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter's Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

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