My name is Antipholus of Syracuse. I am the manager of Syracuse Commercial Bank, with private business interest in the following sectors: Real Estate, Tobacco, Gold Dust, Oil and Gas. I am writing to seek a trustworthy HONEST person to assist in the noble transfer of US 7,500,000,000 (SEVEN MILLION FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND US DOLLARS). This is the sum I have placed in a SUSPENSE ACCOUNT during a visit to Ephesus. Unfortunately I was mugged in an alleyway shortly after leaving the Porcupine Hotel by a gang with a knife placed at my throat and all my tickets, bank cards and cellphone were taken. I am worried that my identity has been stolen. I am impelled to request your assistance to authorise the transfer of my blocked funds into your account. I intend to part 30% of the funds to you. There are no risks involved in this. I will appreciate your response to my private email address.
All I can say is that Antipholus should have consulted TripAdvisor before checking in to the Porcupine Hotel, a sleazy place frequented by tarts, pimps, scammers, dealers, transvestites, leather boys and off-duty policemen. Personally, after seeing this play at the National Theatre, I shall give Ephesus a wide berth in future and stick to Bognor Regis. Director Dominic Cooke and designer Bunny Christie have clearly made the trip to Ephesus and got back safely with their wallets, but I doubt if too many audience members will want to follow them.
Shakespeare's early comedy of mistaken identities and lost twins is often played as a light-hearted romp, but the great thing about this production is that Cooke finds a much darker dimension in the story. Ephesus becomes the dodgiest of dodgy world cities, ruled by a duke who is just another cockney gangster in a camel hair coat. Its sleaziness has a surreal, nightmarish quality, a world of spells and witchcraft. It's not a place for tourists, and certainly not for naive travellers from Syracuse like Antipholus (Lenny Henry) and his servant Dromio (Lucian Msamati). Ephesus is more than just an edgy destination; it's a nasty blend of first and third world, somewhere between London and Lagos, or possible Naples or Barcelona. How can a wife fail to tell the difference between her husband and his twin brother? How can a master not tell his own servant from someone else's? Well, the short answer is that both servants are wearing Arsenal shirts. The longer explanation is that human beings are endlessly credulous, particularly under stress. One of my friends knows a highly educated man who sent thousands of pounds to Nigeria on the basis of an email scam; the more he was fleeced, the more solid his belief that the scam was genuine and the greater his level of denial. That's the paranoid psychological logic of Shakespeare's play. There is no deliberate deception in this play, only self-deception, which is dramatically far more interesting.
Before Antipholus takes out his tourist map, the tale of his father, the arrested merchant Egeon, about how he became separated from his wife and twin sons is acted out in spectacular mime up and down Christie's towering three-storey set. This rams home the importance of the divided family at the centre of the play, and makes the final scene when they are reunited a real emotional moment. The dark visions of this production don't destroy the essentially comic nature of the plot, and there's a very funny chase scene in the second half. I saw an early preview, and I'm happy to bet that this production will get much funnier as it it gets into its stride. In upper part of the circle, every word from this highly experienced cast is audible and crystal clear in its projection -- something that not every production in the Olivier achieves. The experienced cast are all excellent; Henry and Msamati don't double up as Antipholus and Dromio, leaving the Ephesus half of the twins to be played by Chris Jarman and Daniel Poyser. Claudie Blakley and Michelle Terry play Adriana and her sister Luciana as a pair of Essex girl fashionistas, teetering on high heels. Joseph Mydell as Egeon also stands out. At first I was worried that Christie's complex set design might overwhelm the actors, but it doesn't happen. For Dominic Cooke, hopping across the Thames from his day job running the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, this is a third hit in a row after Clybourne Park and Chicken Soup with Barley. The only part that doesn't quite work is the music; the four street musicians look fine but don't sound all that great. I think they would be better employed on stage doing shell games with dice and cardboard boxes like the Balkan petty criminals who fleece tourists on Westminster Bridge.