The key to “The Comedy of Errors” would appear to lie in the title. But making his overdue National Theater debut, director Dominic Cooke proves that there’s more to Shakespeare’s farce than multiple cases of mistaken identity. There are times when the frantic humor grows so bellicose that it smothers the belly-laughs, but the truthful thesping of the final scene is so heartstopping that all is forgiven.
This is the Shakespeare comedy based around twin sets of twins, separated as children, who cause chaos by accidentally pitching up in the same place for a day of near-disaster.
Cooke smartly casts stand-up and TV comedy favorite Lenny Henry in the lead role of Antipholus of Syracuse. This is less of a stunt than it appears, since Henry made his Shakespeare debut last year as Othello in a broad-brushstrokes production he wound up having to carry almost single-handedly. Here, paired with Lucien Msamati, a master of deadpan timing as his servant and sidekick Dromio, he glows with assurance.
The pair of them bounce off each other literally as well as figuratively, with Cooke happily encouraging broad physical comedy as the plot confusions mount up.
Although the energy sags in scenes with their rather effortful counterpart twins, there’s plenty more humor and passion from the terrific pairing of Claudie Blakely and Michelle Terry, seizing comedy opportunities as a fiery Adriana and a deliciously dim Luciana. Teetering about in designer Bunny Christie’s vertiginous heels and blonde hair, they’re wonderfully white-trash-with-money living in a soulless apartment building (cue income gags) in a down-at-heel, contemporary European city.
Although the location is non-specific, the tone is not — this is clearly a city with a busy red-light district. Using four Romanian buskers on accordion and guitars drolly singing everything from Black Sabbath to “Mad World” in Romanian, Cooke keeps the pace up as the action flows across the multiple locations of Christie’s tall and consciously tawdry set.
The climactic chase sequence — complete with ambulance driving on and screeching to a halt, and hoards of white-coated medics — is impressively frenetic but the scale of the physical action proves too overblown. The focus on the human dilemma is lost.
That, however, is counterbalanced by the final act, led by the impressively stentorian tones of Pamela Nomvete as the Abbess, who commands respect and lifts the play into another dimension. The awed silence that greets the multiple reunions of the twins and their parents is testament to the truthful playing beneath the preceding mayhem.
A Shakespeare comedy is a counter-intuitive choice for the National’s big Christmas show. Cooke’s production needs a little more time to bed down, but it looks set to be as successful a choice as it was inspired.