When this stunning wooden replica of a 16th-century royal theater was observerThe architecture critic of , Rowan Moore, described it as “a mixture of the authentic and the improvised … of the scholarly and the popular and of the ancient and the modern”. That’s the way it is. This latest comedy is also produced on – and around – its “wooden O” on a stage.
Writers Elizabeth Godber and Nick Lane have, in the words of the programme, “played around” with Shakespeare. The bard’s two pairs of separated identical twins are no longer from Syracuse and Ephesus, but from two warring cities distinguished by their baking (Eccles Cakes vs. Parkin) and their accents: Prescot vs. Scarborough (this is a co-production with the Stephen Joseph Theater of the latter). Deftly delivered lines slide easily between contemporary speech and Elizabethan English, omissions made more or less seamless by Lane’s modern verse (the goldsmith Angelo dreads “suppliers [who]/ Extract late payment with pliers”).
There are more women than in the original. Partly through cross-gender role reversals, but mostly in extended scenes between sisters Adriana (Alyce Liburd), whose misguided husband is Scarborough Antipholus (David Kirkbride), and Luciana (Ida Regan), who is confused and horrified at being killed by Prescot Antipholus (Peter) to be courted Kirkbride). The relationships between and between all of the female characters are richly textured, giving them unforced parity with their male counterparts – a magnificent achievement credited (more or less) to Godber.
The hilarious, frenetic action is punctuated by ’80s pop hits – not least a particularly fine rendition of Uptown Girl. Those members of the excellent cast who do not play twins double in other roles and also become backing singers and/or dancers and/or choral narrators, filling us with the characters’ backstories and plot intricacies on the set Keep up to date (or try, it’s not easy). Paul Robinson’s tight direction of the ringmaster relaxes a bit in the second half, which feels exuberant and rushed in this early performance.
If anything falls short in this thoroughly engaging production, it is the sense of danger that underpins Shakespeare’s comedy; so also its correlate – the pure joy of (re)unification and togetherness. The claim of the authors formulated in the program to give the audience “a really great evening of fun” is more than fulfilled.