Monday, 15 October 2012

Audio described theatre review - The Comedy of Errors

Review of audio-described performance of The Comedy of Errors at the RSC Theatre on the afternoon of Saturday 6 October 2012.
Review by Vidar Hjardeng

Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors is a play about 2 pairs of twins and their mistaken identities, brought about as a result of a shipwreck which separated 2 families.  This 2012 Royal Shakespeare Company’s production is one of the RSC’s current trilogy of the Bard’s work involving shipwrecks, including The Tempest and Twelfth Night.  This is the earliest of the trio of plays and Shakespeare took the story of the Comedy of Errors from the Roman writer Plautus, adding a second pair of identical twins to increase the comic potential.  The action takes place in the Mediterranean port of Ephesus (in this production a modern day police state) during the course of one day.  

Once again I took advantage of the introductory notes (available both online and by request, on CD), not least to have a very helpful synopsis of this, quite complicated plot, and a similarly edifying summary of the background of the play, without which I for one, would have found it difficult to get to follow.

In addition to digesting the 15 minutes or so, of pre-show information about the play, its characters, costumes,props and set, I made a point of availing myself of the ever useful touch tour which is laid on by the RSC for all audio-described performances, a couple of hours before the start of any such performance.  Along with fellow visually impaired theatre-goers and those accompanying us, we were met by audio-describers, Julia Grundy and Mary Plackett in the theatre’s foyer at 11.30 am and, accompanied by theatre staff, we were taken onto the thrust stage to examine close-up the part naturalistic/part stylised design of the set, which we were reliably informed evoked the daunting menace of a world where torture regularly took place.  John Bowker’s design also created a cartoon style approach to the farcical situations arising from the brothers’ mistaken identities.

As soon as we arrived on stage surrounded on 3 sides by the audience seating, we were immediately aware of wooden planking which had converted said stage into an irregularly shaped harbour jetty, the left of which ran down into water contained in a glass tank built into the front of the stage.  Julia and Mary reminded us of what had also been set out in the introductory notes, namely that there was an abandoned supermarket trolley submerged in the water depths and, nearer the water’s edge, lay an orange float partly obscured by chains.  Alongside a wooden crate at the back of the jetty were a number of oil drums with horizontal stripes painted in primary colours (from which illegal immigrants would emerge, during the action.)  Grain sacks and other crates were scattered on the right and it was interesting to hear how the wooden planking rose upwards at this point, resembling the 15 foot wave of the designer’s imagination or, if viewed more prosaically, as part of a perimeter wall, or as the fa├žade of a building with windows and doors.  Framing the back of the stage was a large stone arch through which we were told, there was a glimpse of cast iron pillars and arches, suggesting dockside buildings.  Our attention was also drawn to the horizontal arm of a crane slanting across the stage above us, which we learnt would be transporting scenery for different locations such as the summer house, complete with table and chairs.

Before leaving the wings, we had time to inspect some of the costumes reflecting western fashion trends going back 2 generations, along with some props including an AK47 and a metal truncheon.  After  having a bite of lunch and digesting what we had been able to see and, in some cases, literally get a feel for, we were collected our all-important headsets from the cloakroom and to take our seats 15 minutes before curtain-up, for an informative ‘live’ reprise of the scene-setting notes provided by our 2 audio-describers.  Being told that 90 per cent of the stage was in darkness, with only a little light trained on a tank of water on a dock-worker’s trolley, beside which stood an interrogation lamp, not yet switched on, certainly helped me to visualise the dramatic opening scene.  Furthermore thanks to the ‘live’ commentary delivered by Julia in the first half and Mary after the interval, I was able to get the most out of the many comic moments and in fact this was a stage production  - with 2 ‘identical’ sets of twins running in and out in a somewhat farce-like manner -

which I simply would not have been able to follow, never mind enjoy so much, without the excellent audio description.  

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s next audio-described production is The Merry Wives of Windsor on either the afternoon of Saturday 1 Dec 2012 or the evening of Friday 4 January 2013.  Information on how to obtain tickets for the performance and touch tour and how to book headsets can be obtained from the box office on 0844 800 1110

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