Picnics before the show
Am I in earth, in heaven, or in hell?
Sleeping or waking, mad or well-advised?
I had no idea what to expect, setting out for Chester with my daughter to see Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors at the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre. What we got was a rambunctious, athletic and immensely enjoyable take on Shakespeare’s joyous and deliriously madcap farce.
We were lucky with the weather, too. Although we had covered seats, we would have got wet had it rained, which had seemed a real possibility during downpours that morning. This week’s rain and cooler temperatures have left the warm, sunny days of June and July a memory: in his Country Diary in the Guardian, Paul Evans wrote that ‘the swifts had left, switching summer off behind them’. But, on Tuesday evening, the skies cleared and left us dry.
I now know that the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre is the only full-time professional open air theatre company outside London – and that, since being founded in 2010, it has garnered critical acclaim, being described as the ‘the northern alternative to Shakespeare’s Globe and Regent’s Park’ by the Guardian. The company’s director, Alex Clifton, is gaining a reputation for imaginative productions, too.
One of the great things about open-air theatre is the picnic. At Grosvenor Park you can bring your picnic to consume before the show – or during it. We settled down to our comestibles, fortified by Prosecco and red wine from the hospitality tent which also serves home-made cakes, tea and coffee. At first, I mistakenly took the wooden structure, seen to the right of the main performance space in the photo above, to be the cafe – menus were displayed, there were red check tablecloths and a big sign offered TEA. Oddly, though, this turned out to be a stage prop, representing the house of Antipholus of Ephesus, from which he is barred, seemingly by his own servant.
The wife of Antipholus of Ephesus with one or other of the Dromios
The Comedy of Errors is one of William Shakespeare’s early plays, a farcical comedy, drenched in slapstick, mistaken identities, puns and word play. Alex Clifton emphasises the slapstick, in a wild and athletic production which feels like watching an animated cartoon. Like gymnasts, the cast are constantly running, jumping, skipping and falling, even at one stage suffering the indignities of a very messy food fight.
Clifton isn’t the first to incorporate anachronistic music into a Shakespearian production: the story is constantly interrupted by players with saxophones, guitars and a big bass drum careering around the stage doing karaoke versions of songs by Destiny’s Child, Britney Spears and others. Curiously, however, when the play begins, it is with older sing-a-long classics like ‘Roll Out the Barrel’, ‘Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner’ and ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. This was not a promising start, and went on a bit too long for my taste.
Egeon’s sad story animated
However, we were soon hurled pell-mell into Shakespeare’s improbable story. The lengthy explanation by elderly Syracusian trader Egeon as to how he comes to be in Ephesus, and now faces execution, is conveyed in very clever staging. As Egeon tells his sad story – of the loss by shipwreck of his own twin sons (both named Antipholus: why?) and the twin boy slaves (the two Dromios), the actors amusingly animate his account, cartoon-style, atop the set.
Syracusan merchant doomed to die!
From that point on, the pace was relentless – a succession of wildly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud set pieces. As Michael Green wrote in his review for the Chester Chronicle:
It is no exaggeration to say that every single member of the cast is absolutely magnificent but I can’t resist drawing attention … to the incredible talents of identical twin sisters Danielle and Nichole Bird who play the two Dromios. Not only is their comic timing bordering on the supernatural, they are real forces of nature, demonstrating an energy that leaves you feeling exhausted just watching them. There were a number of times when they were having to pull off scenes of difficult physical comedy while continuing to spout some pretty complex dialogue and heaven only knows how much ground they had covered by the end of the show.
The cast were all excellent. Thomas Richardson was good as Antipholus of Syracuse, offering a convincing balance of comedy and innocence in his character. However, those Bird twins really stole the show with such energetic performances that we in the audience were left gasping (by the end, the pair themselves must have been knackered).
Not one, but two Antipholuses – reunited with Mum
There was one particularly mad moment when all the characters were running manically from one side of the performance area to the other, joined in the melee by completely incongruous characters. Michael Green’s review explains:
The lengthiest example of this process could possibly be my own personal highlight of the entire summer in the park as the director has the audacity to throw characters from Macbeth and The Secret Garden into a crazy chase scene of which the Keystone Cops would have been proud! This lovely in-joke was a charming reward for anyone in the audience who had been loyal enough to catch up with all three productions in what has been another triumphant year for the Chester Performs-led project.
We both enjoyed Shakespeare’s punning in the scene where Dromio of Syracuse describes the kitchen-maid in the household of Antipholus of Ephesus:
No longer from head to foot than from hip to hip; she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.
Ireland is in her buttocks: ‘I found it out by the bogs’. America and the Indies he found ‘upon her nose all o’er embellished with rubies, carbuncles’.‘ And where stood Belgium, the Netherlands? ‘Oh, sir, I did not look so low.‘
The play concludes in one of Shakespeare’s most feel-good endings with Dromio of Ephesus indicating to his brother that now they have been freed from servitude, they no longer need to be one step behind another:
Let’s go hand in hand, not one before another.