Comedy of Errors
A 1920s era musical version of Shakespeare's farce is expertly updated and directed by Michael Poynor
It's often said the Northern Irish accent is the closest in the United Kingdom to sounding like the spoken English of the Shakespearian period. So what about the idea of translating Shakespeare into Ulster-speak? How would that sound to a contemporary audience?
That's the starting point for the new adaptation of Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors, Comedy of Errors: The Musiclal, which is currently playing in Theatre at The Mill, Newtownabbey. Director Michael Poynor has given the text what's termed 'a Norn Iron makeover', retaining most of the plotting and structure.
The main effect of giving the Bard a Belfast accent is to consistently, at times brilliantly, illuminate the verbal comedy in the play, a feature often buried beneath the accumulation of contemporary references and obsolete vocabulary in the original.
It's dazzlingly updated story, for example, in Dromio of Syracuse’s (here Drew of Dublin’s) famous enumeration of the countries he insultingly imagines locating on the capacious body of Nell the kitchen-maid, who thinks that she is married to him.
Drew Dillon dispatches writer/director Michael Poynor’s devilishly clever litany of global locations with incredible fluidity, exactly replicating (perhaps even improving on) the nudge-nudge naughtiness of Shakespeare’s original conception. It’s a fantastically effective piece of comic acting.
Dillon is one of eight actors in Poynor’s adaptation, all of whom buy skilfully into the gestural styling of the 1920s period production, with its frequent use of silent film semiology, freeze frames, slow-mo sequences, and melodramatically exaggerated gestures.
They need to sing and dance too. Comedy of Errors: The Musical sports a jazzy score by Mark Dougherty, based principally on 1920s styles and idioms. Dougherty is a hugely experienced composer, and it shows: the songs match words and music expertly, neatly summarising knotty situations, and often actually advancing the action, a relative rarity in musical theatre.
The choreography (by Deborah Maguire) of the frequently complicated ensemble numbers is handled with particular assurance by the singing actors. It’s economically imagined, avoids unnecessary staginess, and truly complements the dramatic action, rather than smothering it.
In a production where tightly integrated teamwork is obviously at a premium, it’s possibly unfair singling out individuals. Sarah Lyle’s feisty Adrianna, though, undoubtedly gives special pleasure, her sassiness and sexual frustrations kittenishly suggested, her steely determination to sort out the annoying menfolk in her life a thing to cower at.
A word also for the show’s two valiant multi-taskers. Orla Mullan has four characters to cover, and nails each one vividly, including a vampish courtesan, a bucolic domestic servant, and a nun. She sings splendidly, and her vocal numbers are among the high points of the evening.
Chris Robinson, meanwhile, has even more bases to cover, and I literally lose count of the number of characters and lightning costume changes he has to negotiate. It’s another intrepid performance, long on verve and expert comic timing.
Poynor sets an ideal pace for the performers, brisk and business-like but never frantically rushed forward in a cheaply effervescent fashion. Sound effects (whistles, drums and cymbal shots) are used to semaphore the many acts of violence inflicted on the long-suffering servant Drews, playfully referencing the slapstick worlds of burlesque, music hall and circus.
Poynor also manages the frenetic unravelling of the play’s mistaken identities with particular élan and imagination, his actors scurrying hyperactively among the seated audience in a wild, Keystone Cops-style chase sequence, to an underscoring of racy jazz licks from the five-part band on stage, led from keyboard by the composer.
It’s the kind of ‘audience involvement’ moment that’s often cringeworthy in the theatre. Here it works, partly because the actors themselves seem so unself-consciously immersed in the general mayhem, partly because the spilling-over of the havoc and confusion of identities on stage seems natural, even necessary, as events boil to their over-wrought conclusion.
‘What I want,’ writes Poynor in the programme, ‘is a frantic, pacy, phrenetic, farcical musical comedy, with all the elements of a hugely entertaining theatre experience without having to apply deep cerebral thinking.’
That is pretty much what he and his talented, hard-working cast and musicians have delivered. It’s a joyful, feel-good evening, but also one that takes the intentions of Shakespeare’s original play seriously, throwing interesting contemporary light on what it actually is that makes this particular ‘comedy of errors’ enduringly funny.
Comedy of Errors: The Musical continues in Theatre at the Mill, Newtownabbey until February 28.