Is The Comedy of Errors really a comedy?

Whisper #155

Hi, I’m Hal. I am an Assistant Director on The Comedy of Errors. The Assistant Director helps the director wherever needed throughout the rehearsal period, directs the understudies and, later on down the line, will need to keep noting the show all the way through to the end of its run. It is an incredibly busy and immersive role at the centre of the project.

Seeing with fresh eyes

The Comedy of Errors is often played for laughs and is, without doubt, a funny play, crammed full of mishaps and mistaken identity. However, our Director, Phillip Breen, was always keen for us to ‘take the play at the artifice’: to see with fresh eyes what is there, instead of being influenced by the reputation of the play. 

In the first two weeks of rehearsals, we worked around a table with Phillip playing ‘quiz master’. He had the whole company reading the play, but not their own parts. Everyone got involved: from stage management to voice department to me! We were each given key things to focus on and point out, such as time, money, beatings, miracles etc. As a result, we were like detectives, finding clues, trying to solve the case of The Comedy of Errors

By looking the play in the eye like this, we uncovered a number of key bits of evidence. Firstly, the famous storm scene arguably has no actual storm. Secondly, there is a lot of very real pain in the play and much of the action is actually very domestic. Furthermore, so much of the play seems to happen in the moment. The events in the story take place over just a few hours. This gives us a feeling of being on a near real-time rollercoaster, and what a thrilling ride it is.

A desk and script in a rehearsal room.
The Comedy of Errors rehearsal room.

It is also a truly underrated drama full of textual surprises; a much deeper and more complex play than I think we all realised. At the core is loss, confusion and separation: loss of brothers, loss of a father, mother and sons. Sitting beside this is the loss of Antipholus of Ephesus and Adriana’s broken, rotting marriage, which drives much of the dramatic, error-ridden action. We also discovered just how dynamic Shakespeare’s use of language is. It is incredibly rich and nimble stuff. Shakespeare effortlessly flits between blank verse, rhyme and prose in most scenes. This serves to shift the pacing, mood and emotion of the story at a breakneck speed. 

Unlocking the world of the production

Meanwhile, our composer, Paddy Cunneen, and movement director, Charlotte Broom, have been trying to unlock the musical and visual world of the production. They’ve uncovered a dreamlike, abstracted style that chimes well with the discombobulating experiences of the characters in the play.

During weeks 3 and 4, we quickly get the scenes up on their feet and it seems like the hard work of the table read has paid off. There is already a fair bit of detail in the delivery of the text and the actors are already taking risks. Phillip maintains a positive, joyful atmosphere in the room; laughter is in abundance and this good feeling creates a safe space for the actors to play. 

Throughout the process, I’ve been offering ideas and notes to Phillip and the actors, as well as frantically scribbling notes, which will help me work out the Rubik’s cube of the understudy track! Indeed, understudy rehearsals have already begun and I am fully whipped up into the full flow of my RSC assistant director journey. It’s been a wild ride so far!

Hal Chambers

Hal Chambers is the Assistant Director on The Comedy of Errors. He is a director, puppet director and education facilitator based in south London. He has recently directed work for Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough, York Theatre Royal, Eastern Angles, Polka Theatre, RADA and Shakespeare’s Globe Education. He is super excited about working with the RSC for the first time!

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