Sunday, 29 July 2012

A Modern Comedy of Errors

Much as I've enjoyed the last few plays I've seen at the RST, after the serious and slightly unsettling tone I've become accustomed to, it was nice to see something a bit more light-hearted and easy-going in The Comedy of Errors on Wednesday. Despite the fact that neither pair of twins looked anything like each other, the entire audience was quite willing to suspend its disbelief, partly because (as I discussed in my Julius Caesar review earlier), that's the nature of the theatre, but also partly because of the strength of the actors and their comic timing. There's an entertaining little interview in the programme with Bruce Mackinnon and Felix Hayes, who played the two Dromios, where the actors explain how they were partly selected because of the similarities in their acting styles, and additionally how they watched each other and tried to shape their own expressions and postures to each others'.

Although there's something quintessentially Renaissance about the early capitalism of this play, I really loved the decision to update it. Amir Nizar Zuabi's take on Shakespeare's work saw Antipholus of Ephesus as a kind of geezer/wide-boy type, permitting an interpretation of the “credit”, which Daniel Vitkus discusses extensively in his article in the programme, as something like “street-cred”. It fitted perfectly: the central image of the chain was easily translated into a wonderfully tacky bit of “bling” that Antipholus had bought either (it's never made quite clear) for his wife or for his favourite whore.

There's something to be said for the timing of this commentary on the merchant-capitalist world at the moment, whether or not the production team and ensemble were fully aware of it. The financial “credit” system, just beginning to take off when Shakespeare wrote this play, has now reached epidemic proportions, leading to the “global financial crisis” or “world recession” that has somehow been allowed to happen. The illogic of a situation where everyone owes money to someone and nobody actually has any never ceases to astound me. Although, as Vitkus notes, the play never thoroughly resolves its credit issues or pays off all its debts, it's made quite clear that, as long as the two Antipholuses pay what they're supposed to, everyone else will be okay: i.e. someone always has the money and the power to solve financial problems. In the case of global economic politics today, however, things have become so complicated that its not even really clear who owes whom any more, and there don't seem to be any simple ways of resolving the issue. I don't know how this can be the case but, hey, I'm told it is, and I gave up on Maths after I finished my GCSEs, so I probably wouldn't understand it even if someone gave me a legitimate explanation. This is about as much as I can get my head around. The way I see it, all the real stuff that's happening now is far more farcical and ridiculous than anything the mind of Shakespeare could invent.

Vitkus explains that the seventeenth century was the exact period when the word “credit” began to be associated more with money than with morals. Prior to this, it had principally referred to a person's personal or moral worth. Such a reading of the word still lingers in certain linguistic contexts today – something can be “to a person's credit”, or we can “credit someone with something”. Even film “credits” retain something of this, though that's at least in part bound up with the now more common monetary interpretation. I found this particularly interesting because already in Shakespeare's time we can see hints of where our society was headed – and where its found itself now. Today, one's economic situation is seen by many as the be all and end all. Fame and fortune are what we are encouraged to aspire to, what we are taught to channel our hopes and ambitions towards, leaving other such potential goals as strong moral character, compassion, good citizenship, responsible parenting, or even creative innovation relatively unregarded. This is why we see people willing to air all their personal problems in public, just to get themselves on national television, and people willing to be watched 24/7 by strangers or to make fools of themselves on reality shows. It's why people sell their stories to the tabloids, and it's even behind much of what happened in the London riots. One's status is now based almost solely on what one has, rather than what one does and, for all his own status as a self-made man - entirely the product of the new capitalist economy - The Comedy of Errors nevertheless suggests that this economy was something Shakespeare was more than capable of criticising.

Perhaps we can all learn a little something from the perfect brotherhood and selflessness of the two Dromios in their encounter at the end of the play. Although this pair of underling twins never (unlike at least one of their masters, and their masters' father) actively wished to seek each other out, it's nonetheless easy to believe that their new-found friendship and fraternity will be the play's most long-lasting. Neither father nor mother to the children made any decent attempt to seek out their lost children. Moreover, as Vitkus suggests, both Antipholuses seem liable to end up at odds with each other: Shakespeare spends far more of the play setting them up as rivals than as friends. Antipholus of Syracuse has too well enjoyed the high-life lived by his climbing capitalist brother to readily give it up, yet neither does Antipholus of Ephesus seem likely to relinquish his role as top dog, or even to readily share it with another. Only the Dromios, then, seem finally to recognise the greater value of love, friendship and equality, leaving the stage “like brother and brother....hand in hand, not one before another.” Despite, or perhaps because of, their lack of ambition in the way of money and status, then, we might see these two as the play's most truly “creditable” characters. At several points during the play, Dromio of Syracuse is given large amounts of money by his superiors but, in spite of the accusations levelled against him and his brother, neither of them, we feel sure, would ever dream of theft or dishonesty. Instead, these characters live to please, remain unassuming and self-deprecating, and are, finally, ready to open their hearts to new friendships.

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