Comedy of Errors: The Musical
Theatre at the Mill adapt William Shakespeare's classic farce as a 1920s era musical. Meet the costumer charged with making it feel authentic
The Comedy of Errors is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays – and one of his funniest. The origins of its convoluted storyline go back to Roman times, while in performance style it is part farce, part slapstick, part commedia dell’arte, part burlesque comedy.
The plot revolves around two sets of identical twins, both of whom were accidentally separated at birth. By a strange twist of fate, in their adult lives each has become servant to the other.
In Shakespeare’s version, Antipholus of Syracuse and his servant, Dromio of Syracuse, arrive in Ephesus, the home of their long-lost twin brothers, Antipholus of Ephesus and Dromio of Ephesus. At this point, things start to go seriously pear-shaped.
Such madcap comedy offers rich pickings to the mischievous imagination of Michael Poynor, who has written and directed more musicals and more adaptations of Shakespeare than most people have eaten hot dinners.
The notion of adapting this play to a Northern Ireland context – and, in the process, turning it into a piece of musical theatre – had been washing around Poynor brain for some time. Then he teamed up with Bernard Clarkson, the enterprising director of the Theatre at the Mill in Newtownabbey, who thought it a fine idea, and promptly commissioned it as the theatre’s next in-house production.
Poynor has taken Shakespeare’s original text and gone through it line by line, keeping to the rhythms, observing the rhyming lines and translating the whole thing into modern day Northern Irish vernacular.
'It was a huge task, much bigger than I originally thought,' he admits. 'The verse element was particularly demanding, as the play is 85% verse and 15% prose.
'I had always been very aware, of course, that Shakespearean English and the way that people speak in Northern Ireland are very similar. But it was not until I got stuck into the text that I realized how closely aligned they are and what a large vocabulary they share.
'Shakespeare was a great man for innuendo and smuttiness, all done through his brilliant use of words. I’ve had great fun keeping in all the double entendres and naughty jokes, while making them accessible and understandable to a modern audience.
'I have also kept the exact same ratio of verse and prose as in the original. But about three parts of the way into the writing, I felt that it had suddenly got easier and I realized that it was because the text had stopped rhyming and had switched to prose.
'Like me, I think Shakespeare was starting to run out of time and needed to crack on and get the job finished. It was as though I was living in a parallel universe, with Shakespeare sitting on my shoulder.'
In this new version, Antipholus and Dromio have become Antony and Drew, two pairs of Belfast lads who get themselves into a terrible tangle. Poynor’s long-time collaborator, Elroy Ashmore’s set design reflects that sense of confusion and duplication.
Nothing is quite as it seems. The backdrop is formed of huge black and white photographic images of Belfast City Hlll, and the imposing buildings around Donegall Square. But the images are duplicated and switched, reformed back to back, making it difficult to work out what is real and what is not.
The black and white theme continues into the costumes, which Ashmore has conceived in the context of 1920s Belfast. Research into the clothes of the period revealed a sombre, serviceable colour palette, historically accurate but out of synch with the spirit of both Poynor’s fun-filled comedy and Mark Dougherty’s syncopated, catchy music.
And so he turned to the silent movies and music hall entertainment of the time, with their outlandish, clownish characters and larger than life performers like Charlie Chaplin and The Three Stooges.
The task of realising this concept fell to Judy Kay, a former careers guidance counsellor and teacher, whose distinctive hybrid accent betrays her early years of growing up in Australia and Waterford. She says that, under her mother’s guidance, she started sewing at the age of 13 and kept the interest going all through her previous careers.
Her first venture into costume production came when she volunteered to help director Ashley Fulton with his production of My Fair Lady for Friends School in Lisburn. Her spectacular black and white designs, dashed with red and purple, attracted widespread praise, and slowly the idea formed in her mind of a radical career move.
'My husband works for Newtownabbey Borough Council and he brought into work some of my publicity flyers,' Kay explains. 'They found their way into the hands of Bernard Clarkson, who had just been appointed the director of the new Theatre at the Mill.
'He invited me to do the costumes for his first production, Sweeney Todd with Peter Corry. That was my first professional job, and since then I haven’t stopped.
'I’ve done a number of shows for Peter, including The Producers, which had 300 costumes, and his show Celtic Rhythms, which is going on tour very shortly. I’ve done several productions with Replay Theatre Company and was called in to help with the costumes for The Jungle Book at the Lyric Theatre. It’s been non-stop, but I am loving it.'
This new production is a particularly tricky prospect, as it involves dressing two sets of identical twins, who, in real life, are far from identical. As well as nailing the period look, Kay has had to use her own ingenuity and imagination in adapting outfits to suit the quirky, clownish visual twists required by the designer.
Then, of course, the costumes must look good on the actor, who needs to be able to move freely and confidently inside them. Plus, there also needs to be provision for the helter-skelter process of quick changes.
'Elroy wanted the characters to be very identifiable by their clothes, partly as an element of the characterisation but also to help with the mistaken identity plotline,' she adds.
'It is really important that the audience engages with the characters, but also that we fool the eye into believing the confusion of the other unsuspecting characters when faced with an identical twin. He provided me with some beautiful, elegant sketches and, if we had had a bigger budget, I would have loved to made them from scratch. Instead, I had to source them from a variety of places.'
Armed with cast measurements, Kay hit the road, travelling from Bangor to Newry and back again as though in a treasure hunt. Shoes and hats have proved the biggest difficulty, and while there were plenty of beaded, flapper dresses to be found, Ashmore was adamant that the two leading female characters should dress professionally not frivolously.
'Sourcing a single costume can be difficult, never mind finding two sets of the same costume in two sizes to fit two members of the cast. Even their shoes need to match. Shoes and hats are always the hardest items to find. Two pairs of the same shoe in different sizes is proving difficult at the moment, so I’m looking at dying a pair of brogues to match a perfect one-off cream and brown pair, which I bought on e-bay.
'My other difficulty is that the actors playing the twins are obviously not twins. In this case, they are different heights, so I’m using various tricks with built-up shoes and hatband widths to deceive the eye. Costume changes are always a nightmare.
'Two of the actors play four roles each, so we have to under-dress the actor, with one or even two costumes worn underneath. In one scene, an actor goes off and then comes on again immediately – in the character of a nun. We had to find a large habit that could be thrown on over the costume, with a wimple that plonks easily over the head.'
Kay believes that audiences will find much to love in Comedy of Errors: The Musical, particularly at a time when television period dramas such as Mr Selfridge, dance shows like Strictly Come Dancing and musicals like Les Misérables are currently enjoying huge mainstream success. There couldn't be a better time for a musical adaptation of a classic Shakespeare comedy.
'And now I’ve shared all these tricks of the trade,' Kay winks, 'I can just imagine that the audience will have great fun trying to spot the differences, and judging how well we have succeeded in delivering the magic of theatre.'
Comedy of Errors: The Musical runs at the Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey from February 19 to March 2.