Written for Not So Reviews in 2012.
The world of film, television, and the arts are bound ever less by convention, and contemporising Shakespeare is not, in itself, bold or even novel. Doing so in a banal, wandering, or debasing manner is therefore perilous, and it is important that each decision taken in the process is carefully justified.
But works in certain genres might well prove more in need of renovation than those in others. The ability of language to amplify or create the impact of tragedy will not, on the whole, wane. Studies of history and human nature should, by definition, be timeless. But a central device of a sizeable portion of Shakespeare’s work is one of those most likely to have trouble outliving its sculptor undiminished: comedy.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s most recent production of Comedy of Errors is, in almost every aspect, modernised in a fashion that seems refreshingly appropriate. Ephesus has been transformed into a dark, authoritarian state, with characters from the mayor to the merchant remodelled accordingly—the former into a draconian playboy, the latter into a trepidatious dock worker, hurrying away for fear of reprisal having ushered trespassers Anitpholus and Dromio from the transit crate that delivered them from Syracuse.
The scenery, emulating a port boardwalk, amplifies those darker overtones. Weathered wooden decking protrudes over a murky water tank downstage, and pivots violently skyward as it recedes to create an ominous and overbearing backdrop. Whole new settings are created with minimal overhaul. Notably, a front door is lowered onto centre stage rotating freely about a wire, providing an opportunity for some enjoyable physical comedy as Antipholus of Ephesus wrestles it for entry to his own home.
From setting to set, the production is adventurous, and successfully so. Equally adventurous, though by no means risky and only occasionally successful, are the means by which laughter is coaxed from the audience. Well-acted and produced though the show is, taking precedence in the construction of humour is not subtlety or wit or language, but hoots and hollers and gesticulations. Slapstick is fitting in parts, and counterbalances the sinister atmosphere created by the over-looming set and cutaways of the mayor’s violent mob (the entrance at one point of a marching band would certainly suggest that the production was not intended to be dark).
But as enjoyable as much of this production’s farcicality may be, its tone becomes distractingly flamboyant. Language is rarely exploited for comedy, sending humour derived both from the script and the storyline itself awry. Funny lines are too often drowned in the cheap laughter won by the slapstick gesture that accompanied them, or submerged by breakneck or pantomime delivery.
No characters demonstrate this better than the manservant Dromio twins, the obvious choices to become the unfortunate vehicles of comic relief. While the portrayal of the characters is at least convincing and consistent with the play’s tone, the brothers are excessively dim-witted. This does lend itself to certain scenes, invoking sympathy from the audience when a master’s furore is too harsh, and creating a touchingly awkward innocence when the two are reunited at the play’s close.
But when mistaken identity causes accusations of wrongdoing to be levelled at either one of the twins, you might easily wonder if ineptitude on his part really was the source of confusion. And as the audience’s laughter spurs the scolding and torment of squealing and hapless jesters, the dramatic irony that should emerge amidst the befuddlement remains intangible.
Those moments, while smattered with cut and paste laugh-winners that owe less to Shakespeare than to the early career of Dick Van Dyke, are the only ones that really curl the toes. And I’ve no doubt that they were part of an effort to make the show enjoyable and easygoing. My grumble is that much of this effort, besides being superfluous, weaved a cheap and sickly thread into an otherwise hugely enjoyable production.
Certainly, a Shakespeare comedy can involve slapstick. And the excesses of slapstick probably are better than flat delivery of Shakespearean quips, archaic or otherwise, doomed to elicit the mirthful coughs of people keen to parade their admiration of the emperor’s new clothes.
But should that slapstick serve to make sure everyone is laughing, in the right place, all the time? I’ve heard that Vegas casinos broadcast loop audio of copper impacting steel to make everyone conscious that everybody else is having the evening they had hoped for. Why not grant the laughter track an unwelcome revival?
The potency of any given joke, or even its cultural relevance, might diminish. But the vacuum in its wake is not so vast as to warrant laughter tracks, nor, indeed, cheapness. And there is no reason that altering, twisting and contorting a Shakespeare script to comedy’s ends should be sacrilegious—I’ve heard good things about a recent comedy production of Macbeth—but the motive for doing so matters.
The material does not need to be made accessible, especially if its substance evaporates in the process, because anyone can read, understand, and be amused by Shakespeare. Whether the script is honoured in its purest form does not matter, so long as the audience don’t find themselves laughing at something that has nothing, or more importantly little that has anything, to do with the play.