There’s a muted tenor to Tim Supple’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of “The Comedy of Errors.” While it displays the proficiency of the RSC’s younger, less laureled thesps to good effect, this uncommonly leisurely, often serious-minded version meets some resistance in trying to pull a semi-dark and bilious evening from one of Shakespeare’s lightest efforts.
A simple, sunbaked set of slanted planes and manor frontage sets the scene for this mistaken-identity farce. Separated from each other and their parents by shipwrecked circumstance, the two Antipholuses are fated to meet again in Ephesus; little do they suspect their aged father, Aegeon (Christopher Saul), has landed there as well, and faces beheading as an enemy if heavy bail isn’t posted.
The traveling-through bachelor Antipholus of Syracuse (Robert Bowman) soon finds himself bewildering Adriana (Sarah C. Cameron), whose husband Antipholus (Simon Coates) has lately exasperated her patience. Latter, meanwhile, is incensed by the behavior of both wife and two merchants (Andy Williams, Gary Oliver) to whom he’s indebted as words, actions and payments get confused between the look-alike sibs. Long-parted twin servant Dromios (Dan Milne, Eric Mallett) get caught in the middle, and become the frequent head-thwacking brunt of everyone’s frustration.
These last bits are most neatly worked out in Supple’s clever blocking. But this “Comedy” is less interested in slapstick than in the work’s threatening undertow of spousal rage, offended reputation and neck-risking legal peril. It’s a stretch, since all such elements remain rather silly despite best-shot directorial efforts at ominous weight.
Supple alternates antic, brisk scenes with ones whose rhythm slows to a mannered attenuation. It’s an interesting approach that may ultimately be wasted on a play so determinedly, joyfully frivolous. Typical is the long coda in which the Abbess Emilia (vinegary Ursula Jones) welcomes nearly every character into her sanctuary, one by one. The shocked tentativeness they exhibit toward reconciliation is touching but eats up more stage time than Shakespeare can possibly have had in mind.
The result is a show more admirable than funny or engrossing. It’s kept afloat by nicely honed lead performances: Bowman gets both melancholic and comic mileage from his Antipholus (despite an overindulged gurgling laugh), balanced by Coates’ more hotheaded sib; the two Dromios are well matched in skinhead cheekiness. Cameron’s wife starts out too harpyish, then gains strength as her anger turns to desperation. Thusita Jayasundera makes a smart, modern impression (recalling Helena Bonham Carter) as Adriana’s sister Luciana, who takes fright at mutual attraction betwixt herself and the unwed Antipholus she takes for her brother-in-law.
Subsidiary roles are generally well turned. Three live musicians stay within view stage-right, playing the exotic instruments required by Adrian Lee’s Middle Eastern-inflected score.
This modest RSC roadshow is technically sleek within its chosen, rather visually unexciting limits. But “Comedy of Errors” seems more burdened than freshened by Supple’s dogged search for Meaning.